A state of emergency: Best of 1997

1. Toni Braxton – Un-Break My Heart
2. Erykah Badu – On & On
3. Ghostface Killah _ Daytona 500
4. Wu-Tang Clan – Triumph
5. En Vogue – Don’t Let Go (Love)
6. Sleater Kinney – Dig Me Out
7. Bjork – Joga
8. Refugee Camp All-Stars featuring Lauryn Hill – The Sweetest Thing
9. Aaliyah – One in a Million
10. George Michael – Star People ’97
11. Smashing Pumpkins – The End Is the Beginning Is the End
12. Sheryl Crow – A Change Would Do You Good
13. Blur – On Your Own
14. Backstreet Boys – Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)
15. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – The Impression That I Get
16. Robyn – Show Me Love
17. Third-Eyed Blind – How’s It Gonna Be
18. Reba McEntire – How Was I to Know
19. Prince – The Holy River
20. Beck – The New Pollution
21. Savage Garden – I Want You
22. Cornershop – Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook remix)
23. Mase – Feel So Good
24. Monaco – What Do You Want From Me
25. Foo Fighers – Everlong
26. The Cure – Wrong Number
27. Dandy Warhols – Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth
28. Hanson – MMMbop
29. Prodigy – Firestarter
30. Shania Twain – Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)
31. The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
32. Yo La Tengo – Autumn Sweater
33. Jay-Z – Who You Wit
34. Pavement – Stereo
35. Janet Jackson – Got Til It’s Gone
36. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
37. Fiona Apple – Criminal
38. The Notorious B.I.G. – Hypnotize
39. Chemical Brothers – Setting Sun
40. Spice Girls – Wannabe
41. Radiohead – Paranoid Android
42. Tony! Toni! Toné! – Thinking of You
43. Bob Dylan – Not Dark Yet
44. Pet Shop Boys – To Step Aside
45. Fleetwood Mac – Silver Springs
46. Sneaker Pimps – 6 Underground
47. Michael Jackson – Morphine
48. Busta Rhymes – Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See
49. Mobb Deep – Hell on Earth
50. Daft Punk – Da Funk
51. Suede – Saturday Night
52. Keith Sweat – Twisted
53. Tori Amos – Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)
54. Usher – You Make Me Wanna…
55. Aaliyah – The One I Gave My Heart To

She’s got the moves, baby: Madonna’s best album tracks

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Revisiting after Prince’s death Eric Henderson and Sal Cinquemani’s 2013 list of Madonna’s best album tracks led me back to 1989’s co-write/co-production “Love Song,” which in turn reminded me of what I already knew: boy, Madonna has more essential album tracks than her singles reputation suggests, and they proliferated after 1989.

To note those tracks is difficult at first: the eponymous debut kept “Think About Me” and “I Know It” to itself yet I heard the former often in early ’85 when public ardor matched her chart ambitions (Jellybean’s Madonna-written “Sidewalk Talk” got Miami airplay much earlier than its Hot 100 chart peak, for instance). But if I concede that Like a Virgin is her weakest long player, then I have to explain what “Stay” is doing on my list and I don’t feel like it; like all her Stephen Bray collaborations from this period its joi de vivre justifies itself (you can do what you like with “Shoo-Be-Doo”). Plus — it’s got firework effects! Even greater is “Over and Over,” whose symmetrical title emphasizes the will to power inseparable from physical and even spiritual attraction that was Madonna’s contribution to the language of pop semiotics. Plus — it’s got the best wordless hook of her career, rendered even more thundering in its You Can Dance remix version.

Matters were still simple for True Blue and Who’s That Girl; not much unreleased shit. Two of my closest junior high girl friends adored “Jimmy Jimmy,” while “The Look of Love” was a British top ten but a nothing here beyond the playground; I included it because it’s the period’s most poignant ballad, showcasing the best of co-writer Patrick Leonard’s atmospheric keyboards and in “All the books I’ve read, and the things I know/Never taught me to laugh, never taught to let go” some of Madonna’s best ah-bitter-fame lyrics.

Finally, let me point out “Supernatural,” a Like a Prayer outtake with fabulous self-harmonizing and sharp drumming that shows what a roll she and Leonard were on in 1989.

1. Words (Erotica)
2. Bye Bye Baby (Erotica)
3. Over and Over (Like a Virgin)
4. Let It Will Be (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
5. Where’s The Party (True Blue and You Can Dance)
6. Stay (Like a Virgin)
7. Love Tried to Welcome Me (Bedtime Stories)
8. He’s a Man (I’m Breathless)
9. In This Life (Erotica)
10. Forbidden Love (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
11. Gone (Music)
12. Love Song (Like a Prayer)
13. Sky Fits Heaven (Ray of Light)
14. Thief of Hearts (Erotica)
15. Till Death Do us Part (Like a Prayer)
16. I’d Rather Be Your Lover (Bedtime Stories)
17. Impressive Instant (Music)
18. Forbidden Love (Bedtime Stories)
19. Swim (Ray of Light)
20. Gang Bang (MDNA)

Getting out of doing these things twice: Blonde on Blonde

Facts are facts: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” remains a horror, and among the examples of malfeasance perpetuated by Forrest Gump in the mid nineties was insisting that this #2 hit is representative of Bob Dylan. Representative of his playfulness? You bet. Of his way with horns? Sure. Of his ability to laugh mid sentence and keep truckin’? Of course. But the results are at best a whirring trifle. Blonde on Blonde has other songs I don’t like. “Pledging My Time” is twelve-bar blues filler. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” can’t sustain its eleven-minute length; when I played my Columbia House copy in 1994 I’d fast forward through it. Without Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s piano I find it hard to remember a note of “Temporary Like Achilles.” Looking at what I’d cut reduces the album to my least favorite released between The Times They Are A-Changin’ and New Morning.

Yet! It’s still a doozy. Just when I imagined clickbait-obsessed editors would have to offer pencil shavings and organ grinders on the fiftieth anniversary of its release, Rob Sheffield forced me today to think about the Smokey Robinson influence; the singer-songewriter-producer whom Dylan, perhaps apocryphally, praised as America’s greatest poet is all over the sound of “Just Like a Woman.” Sheffield unearths the lineage between it and “The Tracks of My Tears”; I hear “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” recorded a year later: a lovesick ballad in which Smokey can’t resist leavening his scorn with a melody that conveys his determination to believe in the mirage anyway. His high tenor gives him the mien of a chastened seraph. Straw men who dismiss Dylan’s own melodic facility get fooled by the tug of his vocal, reluctant to leave a syllable unyanked until he can invest it with an ironist’s skepticism and a troubadour’s submission. More than twenty years later, thanks in part to repeated viewings of Annie Hall, “Just Like a Woman” still unnerves me; I’m not sure sometimes Dylan gets away with what I claim he does. To my ears he mastered this venomous admixture on 1974’s Planet Waves and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. The two most Smokey-drenched tracks, as Sheffield argues, are “”Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” and “I Want You,” the latter drunk on couplets, with Al Kooper’s organ the moonshine; the former a lurching beast with a surly guitar line, even angrier when The Band put eight years of experience into it.

But when I remember to play Blonde on Blonde I go to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” a train going round the bend whose passengers include Shakespeare with his pointed shoes and bells, Mona with her sage advice about railroad men drinking your blood like wine, sociopathic Grandpa buried in the rocks after shooting up Main Street, and other products of Dylan’s addled brain, reeling from wine and rocks and god knows what else. With Ken Buttrey’s assured fills and more chirping Kooper organ, “Stuck Inside…” is Dylan’s happiest song; the song is in the middle of discovering itself, of sorting itself out. As gruesome as despair is to sustain, joy is hardest.

Air can hurt you too: Talking Heads 1980

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Vinyl copies were available, but spottings were rare, like female cardinals in South Florida. I saw one in the late nineties; I bought a Japan album instead or some shit. So when Rhino issued The Name of This Band is Talking Heads twelve years ago I got as excited as David Byrne on stage. What good timing too: 2004 marked the peak of the Heads’ new influence on dance-oriented rock issued by DFA Records. Traces even appeared in the work of Interpol and Fischerspooner and other casualties of the first Bush term. About time too. Along with Bowie and Ferry, Talking Heads suffered from that excess of influence. I read this Chris Frantz interview done at the time of the Stop Making Sense anniversary and shared his wistfulness (“”We were almost overrated during our day, but we’re almost too much forgotten now”).

In one of my first reviews for Stylus, I revisited that two-disc wonder. It still sounds terrific.

—————

Talking Heads
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
8-27-2004

The name of its leader is David Byrne. Until 1987, when U2 and R.E.M.’s declamatory arena moves flexed the populist muscle Byrne could never manage, his band Talking Heads was the biggest alternative band in the world—back when “alternative” signified a hell of a lot more beyond gormless marketing. Two double platinum albums, not a single year in which the band didn’t place an album in year-end polls and a Time magazine cover story—all for a band whose evolution from buttoned-up preppies to gonna-see-you-sweat synthesists of Afrobeat rhythms and art-school detachment should have confounded any commercial aspirations.

It was Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense that cemented Talking Heads’ mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, which remains the band’s biggest selling album, is a bit redundant, whether in its original configuration or in 1999’s expanded edition. The music was inseparable from Demme’s sustained flowing takes, as much dependent on how textures and images interweave as the Heads’ Remain in Light in 1980. The soundtrack fails because Byrne’s gonzo athleticism, otherworldly mugging, his sheer weirdness, is missing.

The 1982 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was always the better live document; too bad not many people heard it. Out of print for at least 20 years (if you were lucky you’d find it in a good used-vinyl store), Rhino Records has reissued it with 12 previously unreleased tracks, a booklet of photos and a collection of press clippings (all of which prove how a band’s originality can make decent writers struggle for colorful adjectives). But this is no cynical cash-in; every new track adds gestalt to an album which in its original incarnation was pretty damn great to begin with. Versions of “Born Under Punches” and “Drugs” in particular disembowel the originals.

On its 1980-1981 tour, Talking Heads expanded its original quartet (singer/guitarist Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) to include keyboardist Bernie Worrel (of Parliament fame), guitarist Adrian Belew, backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald, second bassist (!) Busta Jones, and percussionist Steve Scales. The result was glorious—as bustling, loud, funky and unhinged as Manhattan itself. Byrne especially was a revelation: the original Boy with Perpetual Nervousness reincarnated as Iggy Pop; he gave hope to every white guy who dreamed of being dorky and sinuous at the same time.

The Name of This Band…
is gratifyingly looser than the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. You’ll hear this lithe10-piece trying to assimilate the polyrhythms the band and producer (and by now co-composer) Brian Eno constructed so painstakingly on Remain in Light, and it’s a little touching to discover that the parts don’t always mesh (that’s the chance you take when you construct polyrhythms with Brian Eno). Byrne’s pig grunts on “Animals” and elongated vowels on “Mind” are either appropriate or mannered or both, depending on your mood; Belew’s borrowed Robert Frippisms matches him, screech for screech.

The album also vindicates Tina Weymouth, a notorious troublemaker whose run-ins with her neurotic leader have soured her contributions to this day. Two bassists in a band are like six wheels on a car: not only unnecessary, but dangerous. But Weymouth’s steady bottom on the early uptight classics “The Book I Read” and “Pulled Up” encouraged her to experiment with the looser dynamics of “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches.” The same goes for underrated utility man Jerry Harrison, whose lead work on “Found A Job” serves as effective counterpoint for Byrne’s chaka-chaka attack, while his synth fills on “Stay Hungry” are as eerie as intended.

Radiohead and Wilco get undeserved credit these days for “stretching the boundaries”, whatever that means. Talking Heads may have been just as pretentious, but for Byrne and his mates their nerd-pop origin wasn’t a boundary; it was a starting point, a Year Zero, from which the next 12 years were a refinement, a man shedding clothing styles until he’s comfortable. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads reminds us that there’s no shame in being white so long as you’re willing to embrace it.

I don’t care if you got no legs!

My Friday panel devoted a total of four minutes to the opener of Big Bam Boom, Daryl Hall and John Oates’ last imperial phase album. As I noted, clearly the duo had liked New Order’s “Confusion.” Here it is in its six-minutes 12″ glory. appy Sunday.

Phife Dawg – RIP

The joker and the horndog, the prankster and spankster, Malik Taylor vulgarized A Tribe Called Quest’s best material. From the “I like em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian” bit in their best slow jam “Electric Relaxation” to the discovery in “Butter” that women are more complex than his attitudes were willing to admit, this B-ball playin’ fly rhyme sayin’ bro brought a spirit of play when Q-Tip threatened to live up to his The Abstract moniker. The thing was, Tip was grounded enough such that Phife Dawg sometimes felt like an afterthought. Indeed, after 1994 Tribe itself felt like an afterthought, as their increasingly listless albums showed. But on The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders he was on point all the time, his aura positive, far from a bully and no punk. I didn’t need the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest to tell me how much Phife loved his boy Tip, not when the first verse of “Steve Biko” exists.

Al Green: It’s all okay

The streaming age hasn’t made appraisal of Al Green’s catalog easier. When the wedding standards from Greatest Hits pop up on Spotify, I understand why the young hate weddings and old people. From breakthrough Al Green Gets Next to You through Al Green is Love, the R&B singer-songwriter-sensualist recorded full length statements, boasting album tracks as fulsome and ravishing as the chestnuts playing on quiet storm as I type. I’ve a special affection for Livin’ For You because even the likes of “Sweet Sixteen” and the “Unchained Melody” sport growls; he recognizes that, as Joni Mitchell sang two years later, love’s a repetitious danger.

In 2007 I wrote an appreciation of “Beware,” the last track on Livin’ For You. It represents what Harold Bloom would call a breaking of the vessel: drummer Al Jackson and bassist Leroy Hodges disregarding their terse three-minute structures/strictures. Call it Al Green Explores Your Tolerance. Finding the danger in sex, Green stumbles into his future calling as preacher.

—————
Al Green
“Beware”
2007-01-30

You think you know me, but you don’t. I contain multitudes. That’s what Al Green’s “Beware” tells the trusting listener. Livin’ for You has never been as popular as Call Me or I’m Still in Love With You in the pre-Belle Album canon, although it’s home to sizable hits like the title track and “Let’s Get Married,” whose line “I’m tired of your bright ideas about losing me” augurs Green’s approach on “Beware.” Don’t think that this meticulous recordmaker didn’t know that bookending two variations on this theme would inject a welcome snark to an album of tepid tried-and-true’s and remarkably unremarkable covers.

At 8:12, “Beware” is one of Green’s longest tunes—an expansion of what was by 1973 a seasoned craftsman’s obsessions. If “Let’s Stay Together” and “Call Me” rendered Green as the star in his own billowy romantic fantasies, and “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)” was the PG-rated simulacrum of “Tired of Being Alone”’s hard-dicked impatience, “Beware” subsumes them in a groove whose predictability, borne of equal parts confidence and mercenary instincts, doesn’t mitigate Green’s determination to show how finely shaded the Love Man pose was if you were staring hard enough (imagine if Bryan Ferry had fused “If There Is Something” and “Just Another High”!). It’s the work of an artist with an uncanny grasp of how he stood in relation to his audience. Compared with sonic cousin “Your Love Is the Morning Sun,” the drawled hush in which Green sings “Beware” signifies a rapture as besotted with its own ability to provoke rapture as the earlier tune was at delineating the afterglow of one monstrous night of passion.

A chunk of “Beware” maintains a pace as unhurried as “…Morning Sun,” even with Leroy Hodges plucking a bass line as quietly propulsive as a finger thrust up a skirt. Over electric piano and Al Jackson’s as-ever metronomic drumming, Green sings:

The way people smile and say
Using me in every way
It’s all okay
Tired of changin’
Life is upside down
No reason to cry loud

I want to concentrate on the line, “It’s all okay.” Enunciating the two syllables, he assures us that the statement is an unambiguous admission of exhaustion—or is it? The ominous churn of keyboards and drums say otherwise; it’s not okay if one glance at the vinyl tells us there’s still six-plus minutes of all-okay. Then the truly odd: “So many people think life is fun / We’ve only just begun.” Sung in Green’s most fetching growl, you understand why pleasure—fleeting and limited to one’s capacity for re-invention—cannot be contingent on joy. You understand what led Green to affix a “Reverend” to his name after a bowl of grits scalded his back. “Beware” explores pleasure, not joy; this explains its crawl to a triumphant, thundering climax. To approach joy he had to crawl, as he would to Jesus a couple of years later, note by note, testing each instrument, spitting couplets and epithets with homiletic intensity when clarity failed him.

The rest of “Beware” isn’t so interesting: Green, at last figuring out where he’s got to take the track, leads the band through a more loping version of “Love & Happiness.” But a hint of the looser arrangements Green would pursue on The Belle Album appears at midpoint: an acoustic guitar, picked by Green himself (“Play my guitar,” he murmurs, with an infectious pride), weaving between the pistons of Jackson’s drums, coyly, nimbly. The last minute is perfection: Charlie Hodges plays an electric piano motif that’s right out Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Jackson hangs in there, and there’s Green, chuckling. “Every time he laughs mischievously at the passion elicited by his boyish come-on, he shares a joke about the pleasures of the tease,” Robert Christgau once wrote (remember Justin Timberlake’s own giggle in “Senorita”). This unassuming mélange of gospel intensity and post-jazz introspection is one of those hybrids for which Green got so little credit from an audience who wanted wedding standards—and from the artist himself, who would have himself kept recording these standards had not grits and a misunderstanding of the pleasure principle hardened him against a secular muse to whom he could have pledged a troth of a more beguiling stature.

‘This red becomes you’

In 1991 Throwing Muses released The Real Ramona, their shiniest album. Strange things look stranger in the light. The brawny rocker “Red Shoes” never explains what’s got it so upset but with Tanya Donnelly and Kirstin Hersh exchanging riffs and vocals it doesn’t matter. Happy Sunday.

58th Grammy Awards: loud ‘n’ proud

11:01. Performing “Ace of Spades” with Duff McKagan and Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp reprises the guitar stylings he brought to Oasis’ immortal “Fade In-Out.”

10:55. When Iggy dies Dave Grohl will shimmy shirtless in leather pants in a Grammy performance of “Loose.”

10:50. Although I haven’t given Alabama Shakes the attention they deserve, Brittany Howard looks and sounds wonderful and sinister.

10:39. Bonnie Raitt! Like her singing, her speeches are laconic and dry. But why isn’t she playing guitar with Chris Stapleton on “The Thrill is Gone”? EDIT: There she is, adding a few laconic slide lines and barely opening her mouth but investing every monosyllable with grace.

10:26. Isn’t the point of a tribute performance to honor the artist (Bowie) with your own interpretation? Rhetorical question, yes. I’m also tired and want to read Elena Ferrante. I’m 100 percent sure that during her 2010-2011 imperial phase Gaga would not have done a medley. The artist least likely to have done a crass medley does a crass medley that would have embarrassed the Rockettes.

10:18. WHEW. Meghan Trainor wins Best New Artst, thereby destroying her career.

10:12: Boy have I warmed to “Love Yourself”, but it does NOT get more sympathetic over barely competent strumming. The “rock” version of “Where Are U Now” tramples a trifle into paste. “I’ll give you the shirt off my back” — uh no thanks not with that leopard-skin pattern.

10:03: Does Adele sound…flat? Am I wrong? Forcing this non-descript ballad through her fingers, she sounds like she’s singing in a high school shower, and I’ve never minded her.

10:01. Alabama Shakes wins a rock trophy, presaging an Album of the Year win for  Eric Clapton.

9:55. Miguel sings “She’s Out of My Life,” why I’m not sure, when I want him to sing Bowie’s “Fascination” instead of whatever Gaga’s got in store.

9:52. Gwen Stefani, who might as well be undead, honors the spirit of Adam Levine.

9:48. Bliss it was that dawn to be alive/And to follow Kendrick with Seth McFarlane.

9:40. Emerging in chains and dressed as a prisoner, Kendrick Lamar tips his hat to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs show and Hamilton. Lamar is the only performer I’ve seen in recent memory who spits lines at light speed and neither loses his place or concentration nor uses it as a way to get offstage sooner. When this impressive rendition of “Alright” ends with a map of Africa with COMPTON superimposed, it’s almost redundant: that’s how explicit Lamar was. And the producers know it: I can’t remember another Grammy performance that used jump cuts.

9:32. Jokes aside, I guess I have to be there, right? This owner of the Library of America’s collected Alexander Hamilton wants to like this live excerpt. Every bit I’ve heard out of context sounds like “It was 1792 and a helluva night/George Washington was reelected with all his might.”

9:29. Cuts to Stephen Colbert at Hamilton production are Grammy equivalent to Phil Collins on Concorde.

9:27. As marvelous as it is to see a woman who isn’t Bonnie Raitt picking a guitar on a Grammy stage, “cuz I’m hollow” is an unfortunate hook.

9:24. “Make a Grammy moment together” following an Irving Azoff cutaway: vision of hell.

9:15…which segues into a Glenn Frey tribute: Jackson Browne leading the remaining Eagles, including Bernie Leadon but no Randy Meisner or banished Don Felder. They look shaken, men who may have been told yesterday a best friend has died — so shaken that Jackson Browne is off key or was asked to sing the song a couple of notes off key. As if to compensate, Don Henley actually pounds his drums. Why couldn’t Stevie Wonder play “You Belong to the City”?

9:12. “Thinking Out Loud” beating the Puth-Wiz track is like Anthony Kennedy beating Robert Bork, which delights Taylor Swift no end.

9:10. Song of the Year. This looks grim, gang.

9:09. Janelle Monae and Robin Thicke love Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix’s tribute to the late Maurice White. David Grohl hasn’t stopped nodding for forty minutes. Pentatonix honor Earth Wind & Fire’s fashion sense.

9:05. Although the strings are fusty, Karen Fairchild is in fine voice.A reminder that Little Big Town’s Miranda Lambert collaboration “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” is glorious.

9:03. “Some songs FLY to the top of the charts,” Ryan Seacrest coos about Little Big Town’s “GIrl Crush.” Wonderful song. Just like NARAS to defend sexual politics over racial-sexual politics.

8:55. Yesterday’s kitsch is today’s pitch, and “All Night Long (All Nite)” is suddenly as inevitable as “Hey Jude,” especially with Dave Grohl and Beck singing along.

8:53. Tyrese doing “Brick House.” I know Richie is the due who wore sequins and said OUTRAGEOUS but his songs are subtler than this.

8:50. Is John Legend too, ah, easy a choice to sing the immortal “Easy”? Not with his facile melisma. Never mind. Richie looks shattered. And while I have no trouble with Demi Lovato participating, Richie as singer is so mellow and behind the groove that the oversinging feels like an desecreation.

8:47. This Lionel Richie tribute sounds like they’re leading him to the gallows.

8:40. Best Country Album nominee readout generates loud applause for Ashley Monroe’s marvelous The Blade…and Chris Stapleton’s Traveler. Who wins. Because loud beats subtle.

8:39. Please welcome…Gary Sinise, imitating Harry Truman.

8:36. Resplendent in white fir, Andra Day turns the chorus of “Rise Up” into a decent prayer. But the demon of viral marketing forces Ellie Goulding to join her on stage. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences terrified nobody will give a damn if performers sink in the marsh together. Rather symbolically that Goulding and Ray look trapped in a kind of Wrestling Mania cage.

8:32. Waiting for musical tribute to Antonin Scalia, introduced by Michael Greene.

8:24. Ariana Grande sounds like she’s mocking her boy The Weeknd. Don’t worry about it. He’s in good voice during his performance of “Can’t Feel My Face,” despite atrocious dancing and hair that looks like Givenchy draped a dead mink over his head. On the other hand, “In the Night” transformed into a piano and strings ballad turns the line about the woman’s co-dependency into an unpleasantness he can sing past. Chris Stapleton’s clap is as sincere as LL’s hat.

8:14. Wreathed in smoke and kitsch, Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt perform “Take Your Time” and “Heartbeat.” Hunt wears a white T-shirt that makes his biceps look like porterhouse steaks wrapped in linen napkins. Although the cavernous mix and the Staples Center threaten to swallow them, they trade their lines expertly, and when Hunt aims “I don’t want to chase your freedom” and interwines it with lyrics from her song, it’s a full portrait of separation and commitment.

8:10. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., responsible for one of the year’s most searing performances in Straight Outta Compton, joins his dad Ice Cube to present the award for Best Rap Album. Drake’s album draws the loudest applause — louder than for Kendrick Lamar. Nicki Minaj comes second. Lamar is the winner. I love his voice: a knife wrapped in a silk bathrobe.

8:05. “These people sing for real,” LL Cool J intones, nodding towards Taylor Swift and the women in her section. He alludes to other bombastic Grammy collaborations in recent years: Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, Elton John and Lady Gaga. Streamers and masks dominate.

Maurice White — RIP

Not too long ago I was asking a friend, is the 1998 Earth, Wind & Fire compilation among the greatest albums? Up there with In a Silent Way, OK Computer, or whatever else is in your canon? I meant them as statements, of course, and, yes, greatest hits are albums. From the early seventies to 1987 polymath Maurice White and his combo recorded some of the most buoyant tracks in music history. Play “That’s the Way of the World,” “September,” “Sing a Song,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Let’s Groove,” and my beloved “Fantasy” in a continuous sequence — all masterpieces of vocal arranging (notably whenever Philip Bailey’s falsetto shook the rafters), horn charts, and syncopation. George Clinton grumbled (“Earth, Hot Air & No Fire”!), and I understand, especially after “Can’t Hide Love” rips Clinton’s mannerisms from “I Bet You” and quotes him shamelessly. EW&F sold an astonishing number of albums and singles by taking funk to the pop mainstream. But where Clinton gummed up the works with a range of showboating guitarists and poop jokes, nobody in EW&F with the possible exception of Bailey stood out: an ensemble performing as a formidable whole. Even drummer White blurred into the ensemble, although he and bassist Verdine White forged the kind of rhythm section concentrating so hard on being tight that they didn’t mind being invisible.

Finally, aside from the flawless compilations EW&F recorded a few excellent albums. I recommend 1977’s All ‘N All for the presence of “Fantasy” and a couple of sweet Brazilian experiments and 1981’s post-disco Raise!, home of “Let’s Groove” but also “Lady Sun” and a rubberband-elastic funker called “The Changing Times.” White produced and helped write the airiest of dance music, often boasting the airheadest of lyrics. Call EW&F the best band the sixties happened to. When “Let’s Groove” and “September” play, peace and love as concepts — as aphrodisiacs — make sense.