‘But for now I want my feet on the ground’ — a Yo La Tengo best

I came to Yo La Tengo late. Rob Sheffield’s lead review in Rolling Stone did the persuading. The Blue Mask? I’m there (his Lovesexy analogy crumbles though). Confident enough in its smarts to use declarative sentences, employing guitars and vibes and synths to shape sounds commensurate with the relationship it’s celebrating, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out was a good first album but a taxing one. I got I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One on the defunct Columbia House’s website; it soundtracked a summer of county wide commuting to my first journalism internship. One Saturday afternoon I got too stoned listening to “”Spec Bebop.” Summer Sun I embraced without a worry three years later: eleven miniatures, capped by a hushed version of “Take Care.” I may overrate the album because that tour was spectacular: two men and a woman switching instruments and no loss of momentum or joy in the other’s company. We liked the band enough to drive to Jacksonville in 2003, a not inconsiderable concession especially if you know the world’s dullest city. The tour for I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which made a stop in February 2007 at the long gone Studio A, also charmed the hell out of me; the album itself was a take it or leave it deal.

Take or leave my opinion. If being a fan means the demonstration of passion and the willingness to forgive mistakes or mere competence, then I’m not one. But I love these songs.

1. Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)
2. You Can Have It All
3. Little Eyes
4. Stockholm Syndrome
5. Cherry Chaptstick
6. Autumn Sweater
7. Hanky Panky Nohow
8. (Straight Down to the) Bitter End
9. Moby Octopad
10. Sugarcube
11. Season of the Shark
12. Little Honda
13. Ohm
14. The Room Got Heavy
15. Big Day Coming
16. I Should’ve Known Better
17. Deeper Into Movies
18. Madeline
19. From a Motel 6
20. Our Way to Fall
21. A Worrying Thing
22. Blue Line Swinger
23. Pablo and Andrea
24. Somebody’s Baby
25. Drug Test


1. I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One
2. And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
3. Electr-O-Pura
4. Summer Sun
5. Painful

Day care center and night schools: the best of George Harrison

The luckiest sideman and the best second-tier talent in rock history, George Harrison recorded a number of crap albums, a fact that should surprise no one. My mom owned 1975’s Extra Texture (Read All About It) — if there’s a joke in the title, call my agent — and 1976’s Thirty Three & 1/3, for reasons she can’t remember. But when I discovered the Beatles in high school I gave them more time than I did a couple of the girls I dated and — woof. Without listening to any Crosby-Nash albums, I can aver that these sides are the worst song sequences by a second tier talent and lucky sideman in boomer pop.

Here are the hard truths: (a) Harrison had an unusually rich melodic range, almost as complete as McCartney and Lennon’s (b) he couldn’t sing those songs (c) he had Al Green’s passion for a god but had no talent, vocally or temperamentally, for transcendence (his passion for Monty Python revealed he was an ironist) (d) he was too beholden to the studio hack establishment when at least bete noire Paul McCartney would often play those instruments himself (e) he was often bored by his career and his own material. The paradox rests in Harrison’s devotion to that same studio hack community. Unlike McCartney or Lennon, his ego rarely quashed anyone else’s, which made him an ideal producer; if you count his work with Ringo (“It Don’t Come Easy,” which he wrote too but gave away in a typical gesture of generosity) and Badfinger (“Day After Day”), he was a terrific producer, the only one among the Beatles I can imagine carving a sideline because he did care about the success of colleagues. It’s as impossible to imagine McCartney or Lennon cooperating in the Traveling Wilburys as it is to imagine Ringo as lead singer of Roxy Music. Jeff Lynne got the credit because he worked subsequently with Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, but Harrison’s studio savvy with the arrangement of horns and backing vocals and offhand wit (“Handle With Care” was mostly his song) bear a more robust aural stamp.

Yet I love the idea of George Harrison. Fleetwood Mac boasted three songwriters of equal rank; no one but the dullest devotee of punk rock values would claim Lindsey Buckingham was “better” than Christine McVie or Stevie Nicks (an argument I heard often in the early 2000s when Tusk was the shit). Harrison was not, let’s be clear, at the Lennon-McCartney level. But my memory of watching Anthology was appreciating George squeezing lemon over McCartney’s kumbaya and Ringo’s go-along; I can imagine his anti-nostalgia even getting on John Lennon’s nerves should Lennon have lived (in the clip I hyperlinked, the only person who’s never heard of the Beatles will be forgiven for thinking George wasn’t the band leader). Preoccupied with his own mental if not spiritual health, Harrison never took himself as seriously as his fans.

This fact and his handful of good to great songs speak for themselves when his voice couldn’t. Take my #2, as buoyant and graceful as anything by McCartney’s and better — more thoroughly — written than what McCartney released in 1979. And I can’t imagine his two genius colleagues writing “Someplace Else” or “Cheer Down,” co-produced by Lynne, proof that Harrison thrived with colleagues. And when I assume he can’t sing I remember that I prefer his “If Not For You” to good buddy Dylan’s.

1. What Is Life
2. Blow Away
3. If Not For You
4. Cloud Nine
5. Woman Don’t You Cry For Me
6. Awaiting On You All
7. Fish on the Sand
8. Poor Little Girl
9. Someplace Else
10. Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long
11. Run of the Mill
12. This Song
13. Apple Scruffs
14. All Things Must Pass
15. Cheer Down
16. If That’s What It Takes
17. That’s The Way It Goes
18. Crackerbox Palace
19. Handle With Care
20. Dark Horse

The drama that you’re craving: Sleater-Kinney

Rob Sheffield’s nine or ten out of ten review in Details published in the spring of 1997 introduced me to Sleater-Kinney. Unacquainted with Liliput, Essential Logic, Public Image Ltd, and the most violent aspects of post punk, I had no programmed responses to Dig Me Out. The indissoluble unit that was Corin Tucker’s vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s harmonies and tunings, and Janet Weiss’ drums fucked me. “Turn It On” and “Not What You Want” made me almost physically ill. A postpunk show I hosted on my college station in spring ’99 talked me into a tentative track-by-track acceptance, starting with “Dance Song ’97” (the chorus roller rink organ and acceptable chord sequence at the start helped). The Hot Rock had come and gone. By the time I bought All Hands on the Bad One the following summer the band had converted me. I accepted Greil Marcus’ enthusiasm for “Start Together.” I overrated All Hands on the Bad One, in retrospect their most fraught record, an estimable stab at uncurling the gender politics that the Tucker-Brownstein harmonies and riffs had gnarled, or to quote Marcus: “The drama here is less between two people than two sides of the same person, between the first person of any pop song and what in blues songs is called the second mind.” It was more obvious in fall ’00 when two girlfriends played The Hot Rock ad nauseam in their cars; could performance and songwriting sound better than “Start Together,” “Burn Don’t Freeze,” and “A Quarter to Three”?

Two friend straighter than I had no trouble loving S-K on first listen. With them we flew to Chicago to see two shows at the Metro. A few months later they opened for Pearl Jam in West Palm Beach, playing for a less hospitable straight male crowd (“Who are the dykes?” huffed the dude in front of me). Plus, their tautness dissolved in an open air amphitheater. But kudos to Pearl Jam; they were clearly jazzed by the company. Eddie Vedder even joined them for a cover of “Hunger Strike.” I traveled to Atlanta in summer ’05 to watch a show promoting The Woods, an overfuzzed and redundant album to which I still haven’t warmed but I won’t stop trying (forget “Entertain” though, its reactionary sentiments far less interesting melodically and rhythmically than X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” and a portent of Brownstein’s dreadful NPR column).

Still, what a run: only Ghostface and Pavement could boast so many excellent albums since 1990. Because I still couldn’t write intelligently about them and was still struggling as a writer, I bombed an obit for Stylus. Trying to explain my initial revulsion, I stressed their ew-female qualities. I fucked it up and I’m sorry.

1. Dance Song ’97
2. Get Up
3. Dig Me Out
4. Turn It On
5. Anonymous
6. To the Beat
7. The Size of Our Love
8. Step Aside
9. You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun
10. Start Together
11. One Beat
12. The Drama That You’re Craving
13. Milkshake ‘n’ Honey
14. I’m Not Waiting
15. All Hands on the Bad One
16. Leave You Behind
17. The End of You
18. A Quarter to Three
19. Words and Guitar
20. Oh!
21. No Cities to Love
22. Bury Our Friends
23. The Ballad of a Ladyman
24. Fade
25. The Fox
26. Call the Doctor
27. Good Things
28. I’m Not Waiting
29. Buy Her Candy
30. Far Away

I still recall the way he led the charge and saved the day: Steely Dan

There is a welcome impenetrability to Pretzel Logic. Steely Dan’s third album, which I bought in February 1999, had pretty music and indelible choruses (“With a Gun”), pretty music and perplexing choruses (“Monkey in Your Soul”). It had a Duke Ellington cover. Its hat tip to Charlie Parker celebrated his genius and limned the dimensions of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s talents. I didn’t buy Katy Lied until a year later, after which I acquired the rest. I didn’t do much classic rock radio listening in the late nineties but “My Old School” and “Do It Again” were part of the ether; they’d always existed.

I would like to give Usher Raymond IV special thanks for sampling “Third World Man,” recognizing the precision with which the last song on the magnificent Gaucho limns soul decay.

My votes:

1. Third World Man
2. The Boston Rag
3. Deacon Blues
4. Your Gold Teeth
5. Midnight Cruiser
6. Any Major Dude Will Tell You
7. Doctor Wu
8. Kid Charlemagne
9. Gaucho
10. Showbiz Kids
11. Black Friday
12. King of the World
13. Rose Darling
14. Godwhacker
15. FM
16. Hey Nineteen
17. With a Gun
18. Home at Last
19. Dirty Work
20. Glamour Profession


1. CTE
2. Gaucho
3. PL
4. The Nightfly
6. Katy Lied
7. Aja
8. Everything Must Go
9. The Royal Scam
10. Sunken Condos

You own it! The best of Neil Young


In 1999 After the Gold Rush sounded like crap. Who was this cat left out in the rain? Then I bought Rust Never Sleeps and Zuma, in that order, around Christmas. I got it. Today I realized that Neil Young is the only major artist I discovered late whose new albums hold not the slightest interest; at least with Bob Dylan I bought Volume 3 and Time Out of Mind and the rest. With his artless metaphors and high Canadian timbre, Young is as creepy as a domestic scene in a David Lynch film. This fact makes his catalog albums as weird, fraught, and unknowable as any in rock. That’s why Life and Landing on Water fascinate me and why I could delay a, uh, decade before owning Harvest.

1. Sedan Delivery
2. Don’t Cry No Tears
3. Winterlong
4. Ambulance Blues
5. Cocaine Eyes
6. When You Dance I Can Really Love
7. I’m The Ocean
8. Like an Inca
9. Lookin’ for a Love
10 Over and Over
11. Drive On
12. Round and Round
13. Thrasher
14. Fuckin’ Up
15. Drive Back
16. Don’t Cry
17. Hippie Dream
18. Love in Mind
19. Comes A Time
20. Wrecking Ball
21. Don’t Be Denied
22. Everyone Knows This is Nowhere
23. Barstool Blues
24. Powderfinger
25. Campaigner
26. Goin’ Back
27. Safeway Cart
28. No More
29. Out on the Weekend
30. On The Beach
31. Harvest
32. A Man Needs a Maid
33. Cowgirl in the Sand
34. Mr. Soul
35. The Loner
36. Sleeps With Angels
37. Unknown Legend
38. Love and Only Love
39. Nothing is Perfect
40. Transformer Man

We know about time: The best of R.E.M.

In 1995 the only band bigger than R.E.M. was U2. In 2005, the only band less relevant than R.E.M. was Reel Big Fish. When the fingers of time ripped the calendar page from January 2015 I was asking my students at the radio station if they listened to R.E.M. It was like asking a student in 1995 about the Stones’ sixties achievements — indeed, ladies and gents who mourn the circles around their eyes, we had reached equidistant spans of time. I would date the start of the Athens band’s obsolescence from the moment it signed a record contract when its drummer and most crucial member’s health were dictating different terms. But 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi was excellent anyway. Two albums and a millennium later, their interviews consisted of a caffeinated Peter Buck praising the liberties that drum loops afforded them when goddamn Rickie Lee Jones had gotten there first. What’s poignant about the 2001 comedown was how R.E.M. released Up to indifferent American sales at the peak of teen pop acts when a decade and career trajectory ago Green was competing with New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Tiffany.

Call it burnout. Familiarity. Blame rewiring of pleasure centers. It’s impossible for me to find the motivation to pull out an R.E.M. record. Untroubled by how swiftly I compiled the following list of songs, I opted to listen to Fantasia and Parquet Courts — I’m sure she’s heard of R.E.M., the latter probably claim their elders as influences. Memory keeps 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant at the top of the heap, with Don Gehman treating Bill Berry as if he were Kenny Aronoff and a newly articulate Michael Stipe as client John Cougar Mellencamp. Stipe always wrote mush, but his mates’ Wire-y force animates cornball material like “I Believe” and “Fall On Me.” In college I wrote a short story called “Not Everyone Can Carry the Weight of the World,” which should tell my readers something about Murmur‘s hypnotic power on young men of a pretty persuasion. I love Monster more than the list indicates; during its twentieth anniversary a revisit made me hug it close. You can’t imagine how loudly I growled when a newly bald Stipe growled “Am I straight or queer or bi?” a year after the American public still needed fables of the reconstruction like Philadelphia to assuage its guilt about not giving a shit about gays with AIDS. Speaking of, Fables of the Reconstruction has muddled Southern tropes caught in Stipe’s throat and swamp mud coating the rhythm section. Out of Time remains a deserved Soundscan-era breakthrough, not only because it boasted songs like “Texarkana” and “Low” on a #1 record but it granted retrospective validation to Green‘s “You Are the Everything,” the lullaby that soundtracked Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay’s fetal position misery as he thought of the dad he never knew in an awesome Beverly Hills, 90210 episode from summer 1991.

I should give’em another shot. “Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up” is a banality I can recite ten times around a “Hail, Mary” before bed as November approaches.

1. I Believe
2. Shaking Through
3. Wolves, Lower
4. Laughing
5. Perfect Circle
6. Pretty Persuasion
7. Flowers of Guatemala
8. Fall on Me
9. Half a World Away
10. Driver 8
11. Harborcoat
12. Talk About the Passion
13. King of Comedy
14. Catapult
15. Begin the Begin
16. Stand
17. Finest Worksong
18. Superman
19. New Test Leper
20. Low
21. Bittersweet Me
22. Find the River
23. Gardening at Night
24. Monty Got a Raw Deal
25. Losing My Religion
26. Circus Envy
27. Second Guessing
28. Leave
29. E-Bow the Letter
30. Cuyahoga
31. So. Central Rain
32. Star 69
33. Get Up
34. Let Me In
35. Departure
36. Sitting Still
37. Green Grow the Rushes
38. 7 Chinese Brothers
39. Shiny Happy People
40. The Lifting

‘So much goin’ on, I just can’t hear, hear’: The best of CCR

During the age of Aquarius, a thick-faced young man with a voice like a bullfrog crawled from under a Spanish moss-covered boulder. When Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Suzie Q” appeared in 1968, it sounded like a belch from Appalachia. Fogerty and brother Tom traded riffs: one spindly and trebly, the other a burst of feedback. The only other contemporaneous band recording music so drenched in old, weird America yet staring at a someday that may never come was the Velvet Underground, and CCR sold more records. A lot more records. Between 1969 and 1970 CCR’s only rivals were The Beatles. They connected with audiences despite not writing many love songs. Their songs often clocked in at two minutes (“Fortunate Son” is 2:18!). The foxiest man to ever wear flannel, Fogerty was by all accounts the Obergruppenführer, writing and producing and playing inimitable guitar that more bands should emulate (Pavement we know, but if Spoon has any freshness left in 2016, credit Britt Daniel’s similar aesthetic; maybe Parquet Courts too).

The British have contributed some of the best writing about CCR. Mark Sinker on ILM a decade ago:

above all that they cared abt singles rather than LPs, and were definitely counter the big-art-statement faux adult sensibility of the times — the songs were tight and sort of just there, rather than constructed and worked over and part of some brave new post-beatles counterculture world

Marcello Carlin on Cosmo’s Factory, a #1 album in the UK and America:

And so the notion of Creedence, and the perhaps overlapping notion of the Grand Unifying Theory of American Music, since virtually all of it is present in one form or another through Cosmo’s Factory, has to be looked at with some awe. It is a matter of documented fact that one of Kurt Cobain’s earliest bands specialised in Creedence covers and many of the pioneers of grunge and Gen X indie, though only toddlers at the time of this record, would have picked up on these songs instantly, from Dinosaur Jr to the Lemonheads, these songs being simple to learn and easy to play…But look through Nevermind or Surfer Rosa and you may find that these groups are singing about the same things; differently expressed for a different time, perhaps, but the thread still runs. Certainly the organic nature of Creedence’s music has in itself proved hugely influential; their nearest 2010 equivalents are perhaps Spoon, whose apparent surface of hard-working, conservative rock belies an unusual emotional and aesthetic complexity, all the easier to miss because it is done with no showboating.

Fogerty’s characters spoke to working men, but the beauty of Creedence’s brief, refulgent fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them, or stir up something deep and important within them.

Over the years whenever I think I’ve had enough of CCRs hits I’ll play an album track like “Sinister Purpose” or hear “Green River” at a gas station and remember what I liked about them, how fresh these tunes sound, how searing the performances are.

Here are my favorites, my contributions to the ILM poll.

1. Commotion
2. It Came Out of the Sky
3. Wrote a Song For Everyone
4. Sinister Purpose
5. Lookin’ Out My Back Door
6. Walk on Water
7. Green River
8. Don’t Look Now
9. Lodi
10. I Heard It Through the Grapevine
11. Born on the Bayou
12. Tombstone Shadow
13. Fortunate Son
14. Effigy
15. Long As I Can See the Light
16. Who’ll Stop the Rain
17. It’s Just a Thought
18. Down on the Corner
19. Sailor’s Lament
20. Someday Never Comes


Willie and the Poor Boys
Green River
Cosmo’s Factory
Chronicles Vol. 2

It was all very run of the mill: Best of the Pretenders


Many years ago I heard “Precious” and “The Phone Call” side by side and thought I’d discovered the secret of what rock ‘n’ roll singing should sound like. Although she hasn’t recorded an album I care about since the first Clinton was in the White House, I like to say Chrissie Hynde is my favorite vocalist. Most comfortable with a talk-sing meter indifferent to iambs but so intuitive about listener expectations that she understood when to sustain a phrase, Hynde has been imitated by few. Like many first-rate vocalists who write, her melodies followed her stresses. Her band followed nobody — until the deaths of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott. Even so she recorded Learning to Crawl, one of the great roaring-backs in rock and one of 1984’s quiet blockbusters. With the exception of 1986’s Get Close, produced by Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain and sounding like it, she recorded no duds, and before you say Packed!, know that this quiet, modest collection addresses (the fear of) commitment without the verities of adult contemporary. That would come with “I’ll Stand By You.”

1. Mystery Achievement
2. Up the Neck
3. Tattooed Love Boys
4. Talk of the Town
5. Brass in Pockets
6. Middle of the Road
7. Hymn to Her
8. Precious
9. Time the Avenger
10. Back on the Chain Gang
11. Chill Factor
12. Message of Love
13. Sense of Purpose
14. Show Me
15. Let’s Make a Pact
16. Night in My Veins
17. Don’t Get Me Wrong
18. Biker Boy
19. My City Was Gone
20. Day After Day
21. 2000 Miles
22. Popstar
23. My Baby
24. Stop Your Sobbing
25. The Phone Call

I was waiting for him: The career of George Michael

It could have been the pinstriped jacket. But credit the combination of thick generous hair and stubble. When George Michael, then and forever of Wham!, faced the camera in “Careless Whisper” (what a title!) and shared the story of how his character had acted like a cad, I felt the first stirrings of the homosexual lust I wouldn’t acknowledge for at least another decade. Before this look he’d tried tennis shorts — or wasit badminton attire? At any rate he and amiable non-equal Andrew Ridgeley had no use for clothes. From the young men imitating Duran Duran convincingly in “Club Tropicana,” pink cocktails and all (and free!), to the mulleted High Eighties cavorting in “The Edge of Heaven,” Wham! excelled at portraying guys on the make, eyes roving for the next pretty face and good party.

Distinguishing them from their New Pop peers was Michael’s songcraft, as much on the make as everything else about them. He understood saxophones. He understood Synclaviers. He understood Motown. He could belt and whisper. Like Bowie and Madonna, he realized that he could sell any image if his muse was forever on the move, driving like a demon from station to station. And, boy, did he understand The Career Move. First: record an embalmed duet with Aretha Franklin that stayed at #1 for two weeks in the spring of 1987, to date the Queen’s only British chart topper, which should tell you something about Michael’s persuasive powers (I can’t top Tom Ewing’s dismissal: “Simon Climie appears to have written the track using a set of gospel magnetic fridge poetry. Low valleys, high mountains, deep rivers, faith, destiny, spirit”). Next: release a single, several months before his first in-name solo album, tied to the forgotten Beverly Hills Cop sequel, that was as much an ambiguous come-on as “Papa Don’t Preach.” A bait and switch, actually: if she’s made up her mind and is keeping the baby, then George reminds listeners that sex is natural and sex is good when it’s one on one. That “I Want Your Sex” coincided with the phony heterosexual AIDS panic didn’t take away from its subtle endorsement of any kind of diddling so long as it was monogamous and safe. Best, he sang with the detached pep of an enthusiastic PE teacher giving his first sex ed lecture; no one would think he had ever done the missionary.

The album it heralded was the first that dominated my pop imagination. Promising a different look on every single, Faith was the apotheosis of the ’80s obsession with the crossmarket crossover. Unlike Tina Turner, though, Michael produced the record himself and played almost every note. Its most gratifying success? A rare #1 place on the American R&B chart. Those who weren’t there can’t fathom how big Faith was; only Thriller and Born in the U.S.A. were this omnipresent, plus those who freaked to Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The two singles I adored came late in the release cycle: Miami’s Y-100 blasted the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remix of “Monkey” through August 1988, as relentless, as conversant in hip-hop idioms as anything coming out of Def Jam (scratches, “Planet Rock” synth, Michael’s interjected “SNARE!”); and the ravaged “One More Try,” a Casio keyboard demo over which Michael lamented a doomed romance with a teacher who promised worse things that young George didn’t have to learn.

A confused youth learning to read signs and symbols, I heard something discordant about the depths of Michael’s yearning. Sure, Rod Stewart had written his own elegy for an educational tryst with an older woman, but he sounded merely pained. The hysteria expended by Michael seemed disproportionate to the scenario. Straight guys don’t yearn like this; if anything, the pop world has way too many “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”s in its repertoire. The first overt clue came years later in Michael’s last American top ten “Fastlove,” in which he tries to coax an available yum-yum into his BMW because he saw “lovin’ in his eyes.” By 1996, however, no one in the Western world had illusions about George Michael’s heterosexuality. The fact that Older and its singles struggled for American airplay and sales affirmed it; in the year of The Birdcage and the Defense of Marriage Act he could enjoy Soundscan-era catalog sales for “Careless Whisper” and Faith while few gave a damn about the queen’s new music. The rest of the world told a different story about Older, as I learned when I visited London the following summer and heard “Star People ’97” everywhere. Like the Pet Shop Boys’ “Can You Forgive Her,” 1998’s “Outside” was a belated acknowledgment of received knowledge, enlivened by Michael’s obvious relief, not to mention his kinky joy in dressing like the Village Person who wore a cop outfit.

When his personal life turned careless, he didn’t lose his ability with a whisper, but after 2004’s ironically named Patience he lost interest in a mass audience that had grown up with him. He put more energy into getting arrested than recording songs. As perverse as this sounds — I wish George the best — I can think of no better rebuke to contemporary notions of homosexual maturity. Yet “Fastlove,” “Outside,” and tracks like Patience‘s “Precious Box” suggest the kind of thump-thump a randy gay man in his fifties could record should he remember that this same mass audience is ready for these stories and beats in 2016. Unlike Scissor Sisters he can sing them. think of how the writer of “Freedom ’90” and “Too Funky” would flourish in this nu-house environment. And he can look the part: during the Blair/Clinton era former mentor Elton John was old and toupeed and as sexless as a spinster aunt in a Saki short story while Michael looked like George Clooney playing Tom Cruise’s vampire.

Don’t let these observations fool you. George Michael has been an indissoluble part of my life since the fifth grade without disturbing my canon. But as I creep towards the age when in the absence of security I make my way into the night I’m realizing how much I’ve underestimated him. Anticipating the ILM poll whose results were posted today, I went on a binge. I’m still discovering songs. “Precious Box” I’ve mentioned, but what about 1990’s “Heal the Pain”? The acoustic hook and multitracked harmonies are so delectable that Paul McCartney dueted with him in a live cover. What about the bossa nova lilt of “Cowboys and Angels”? (Everyone, it seems, was wrong about Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. except Michael.) For such a former megastar his catalog is approachable and un-vast. Spotify eases the experience of dipping. For men and women who watched him jump holding the shuttlecocks, reacquainting oneself with him will yield surprising rewards; for my younger readers who get Prince and Madonna, here was the other weirdo, the most human of him all. Look at that stubble: it was begging to be fluffed by human hands.


1. Everything She Wants
2. One More Try
3. Monkey
4. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
5. Too Funky
6. Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone
7. Freedom ’90
8. A Different Corner
9. Freedom
10. Father Figure
11. Precious Box
12. Cars and Trains
13. Waiting For The Day
14. Heaven Help Me (Deon Estes)
15. Fastlove
16. Last Christmas
17. Heal the Pain
18. The Strangest Thing
19. Cowboys and Angels
20. Amazing

Thank you, thank you: Best of Al Green

Here’s the thing with jukebox heroes acquainted with Greatest Hits: as much as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, with whom he has little else in common, Al Green recorded albums. Modest about issuing statements in the post-sixties sense of the word, concerned with the space between sticks and snare, attentive to the percussive effect of a single electric guitar strum, they did not reinvent so much as return rhythm and blues to its base: a relationship between the singer and the Divine as intimate as pillow talk.

The way in which Green and producer Willie Mitchell repeated their strategic use of strings and vocal moues reminded listeners of their debt to hymns and liturgies; for Green writing and singing a couplet like “Full of fire/You’re my one desire” was an affirmation, not a prayer. He sang from a place of confidence. Not for him Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s anguish. Even Aretha Franklin’s melismatic evocation of joy as a secular speaking in tongues was beyond his interest. No wonder he covered Willie Nelson — I can think of no other singer from the era who trusted stillness, whose pose was emulating God moving over the face of the waters. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he sang in “Jesus is Waiting.” Although a few years from becoming a reverend, he had the swagger of a man who had found grace but sang as if he had to persuade, one listener at a time; this hushed breath-on-the-neck fervor gives “You Ought to Be With Me” and “Your Love is Like the Morning Sun” their power. The suggestion that he was assuming the omnipotence of the God he loved would have appalled him. I’ll take it further: how else to account for a grinning assurance unknown to any godhead who has tangled with mortals?

1. Jesus is Waiting
2. Feels Like Summer
3. Let’s Get Married
4. I’m a Ram
5. You Ought to Be With Me
6. Belle
7. Beware
8. Love and Happiness
9. Home Again
10. Funny How Time Slips Away
11. I Can’t Get Next to You
12. Full of Fire
13. Livin’ For You
14. Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)
15. Right Now, Right Now
16. Lay It Down
17. Call Me
18. For the Good Times
19. One of These Good Old Days
20. Sweet Sixteen

The termite of temptation: the best of Brian Eno

By the early nineties Brian Eno’s cachet was at its apex. I caught up to him the year he did more than produce U2’s best album Zooropa: I discovered Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, found a Nice Price cassette version of Another Green World, and bought James’ Laid. Then Roxy Music beckoned. Eno was right, as usual: Roxy recorded its best music upon his departure. Through four wonderful vocal albums — unmatched in their admixture of formal invention and gonzo humor — and a beguiling series of collaborations with Robert Fripp, Cluster, Harold Budd, John Cale, and others, Eno has approached rock with a dilettante’s amateurish glee and a sophisticate’s subtlety, bound only by the limits of his curiosity.

So vast as to seem forbidding, his catalog is full of unexpected diversions, uneven by definition. I rank his 1990 Cale collaboration Wrong Way Up with Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Before and After Science but find the Jon Hassell co-recording Fourth World, Volume 1: Possible Musics a vaporous bore, while Discreet Music and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks are never far away from my stereo, notably around bedtime.

I’m happy with my list: a compulsive miscellany. The songs include the collaborations mentioned above, plus a couple excellent ones from David Bowie’s Outside and a standout from his second Karl Hyde project. The differences between “songs” and “collaborations” is elastic though.


1. No One Receiving
2. Spider & I
3. Baby’s On Fire
4. I”ll Come Running
5. One Word
6. This
7. Re-Make/Re-Model
8. Empty Frame
9. Another Green World
10. Burning Airlines…
11. King’s Lead Hat
12. Backwater
13. Becalmed
14. Chance Meeting
15. Back From Judy’s Jungle
16. Editions of You
17. The True Wheel
18. Cindy Tells Me
19. Sky Saw
20. Your Blue Room
21. St. Elmo’s Fire
22. Through Hollow Lands
23. The River (Eno-Cale)
24. Taking Tiger MOuntain
24. Weightless
26. DBF
27. Life is Long
28. Spinning Away
29. No Control
30. Needles in the Camel’s Eye


1. Here Come The Warm Jets
2. Another Green World
3. Wrong Way Up
4. Before and After Science
5. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
6. Apollo
7. More Songs About Buildings and Food
8. Outside
9. Discreet Music
10. Zooropa
11. Achtung Baby
12. No Pussyfooting
13. Laid


1. Gun
2. Listening Wind
3. Say Something
4. Lemon
5. The Fly
6. Heroes
7. The Unforgettable Fire
8. Artists Only
9. Viva La Vida
10. Sometimes
11. Boys Keep Swinging
12. Art Decade
13. Barracuda
14. African Nite Flight
15. The Great Curve

‘There’s not much to talk about’

In which Luther Vandross discovers the possibilities of MIDI. At the time some may have mourned the interplay between piano, backup vocalists, and bass that were hallmarks of his early sound; here, the machine-sponsored precision forces Vandross into finding new vocal nuances: harmonizing with the quiet guitar line, experimenting with his low end, the controlled anguish of the chorus. The coda dissolves into space, uncertainty. “Give Me the Reason” needs none.