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Year-End Listmaking Guilt

Revisiting two records that we didn't spend enough time with in 2008. Every arts writer is implored, to one degree or other, to write year-end...

Revisiting two records that we didn't spend enough time with in 2008.

Every arts writer is implored, to one degree or other, to write year-end lists. But for music fans (not just writers), the impulse is especially pronounced-many of us learned about pop via the Top 40. And many like to quantifying our tastes in lists. If we're occasionally mocked for our trouble (cf. High Fidelity), so be it.Nevertheless, list glut has been with us for years now. December brings forth hundreds of year-end lists in every category, and probably none more than music. I'm adding to the glut by supervising Idolator's Top 80, and voting in a few other polls.But whether fan or professional, and whatever "keeping up" means when the oft-cited figure of 30,000 albums released per year seems a severe underestimate, it can be tough not to feel a little year-end guilt. This isn't a complaint, even if it can sound like one: too much music, not enough time. Wahhh, right? But as someone who writes about it for a living, I do take some pride in getting my lists right every year-I want them to reflect what moved me, not some phantom idea of what the consensus might end up being.The guilt lies in not latching harder onto things you knew you liked but never went back to. The selfish explanation comes from wanting the privilege of more good music in my life; it pains me a little when I realize I've been ignoring something I flipped for the first time through. Sometimes I'm busy with other listening; sometimes I put a CD somewhere I never look for six months. So I'm glad to have a couple records I hadn't quite finished with back in rotation.Drive-By Truckers' Brighter Than Creation's Dark hasn't made a lot of year-end lists, one reason Robert Christgau was talking about it on Slate last week. (It was Christgau's No. 3 album of the year.) I'd bought and played it the day it was released, and was immediately impressed-19 cuts, 79 minutes, songs programmed to heighten tonal contrasts, most of them terrific. The three songwriters-band founders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, as well as recently added bassist Shonna Tucker-are clearly on their game, and a few songs (the snarling "That Man I Shot," the broken "Daddy Needs a Drink") are as powerful as I've heard this year.Naturally, I didn't play it again for nine months. Maybe its particular workingman's blues was too much to take; I kept thinking to play it and then changing my mind. It's good to hear again-if harrowing now, in the Wall Street collapse's aftermath. Maybe that's why I hadn't gone back: so many of my colleagues have lost their jobs this year that listening to it may have felt too close to home.

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Producers’ Choice

Hip-hop beat-makers Jake One and DJ Signify offer differing takes on the showcase album Hip-hop albums by producers who don't rap--unlike, say, Kanye West or Swizz Beatz, who started as beatmakers before taking to the mike--often fall into two broad categories: The first is to showcase the producer's..

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Singles, Attached

New Order and Jay Reatard release singles compilations that challenge the hallowed album form Albums were once simply collections of previously released songs. Therefore, there shouldn't be too great a split between an album and a singles roundup, right? For whatever reason--reading too many issues..

New Order and Jay Reatard release singles compilations that challenge the hallowed album form

Albums were once simply collections of previously released songs. Therefore, there shouldn't be too great a split between an album and a singles roundup, right?For whatever reason--reading too many issues of Rolling Stone, let's say--I always make a distinction in my head, if not with my ears: Albums should be structured like a long drive-peaks, valleys, highway, side roads, etc., a cohesive variety; singles compilations are more like a strung-together series of events. Of course, those rules aren't hard and fast- exceptions start at albums that birth loads of singles, such as Thriller and Rumours.It's impossible, however, to imagine much of the best music released since the '60s without this distinction. Would the Rolling Stones have even recorded "Country Honk," a shambling acoustic run-through of the classic "Honky Tonk Women," if they hadn't decided to leave their version of the latter off Let It Bleed? Would Let It Bleed have so precise a shape minus "Country Honk?"

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The Listener: Studs Terkel

Remembering a great man's always-attentive ears There's something cosmically appropriate about Studs Terkel dying, at age 96, on Halloween. It shares a similarity with James Brown dying on Christmas Day: the holiday adds a notable flourish. The Godfather of Soul lit up the stage like a Christmas tree,..

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The Art of the Segue

\r\nWhen two songs make a right\r\nA great segue is where you find it-even if you weren't necessarily on the lookout. The two I'm most besotted with...

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Michelangelo Matos on Going Forward into the Past

To trace the story of pop music's use of nostalgia is, in some ways, to trace the story of pop music. Of course all musicians recycle what came before by remaking it, reimagining it, or sampling it. Take Amy Winehouse: no major contemporary artist relies more heavily on retro style, both visually and..

To trace the story of pop music's use of nostalgia is, in some ways, to trace the story of pop music. Of course all musicians recycle what came before by remaking it, reimagining it, or sampling it. Take Amy Winehouse: no major contemporary artist relies more heavily on retro style, both visually and musically. Which brings us to the age-old question, "Is recreating the past merely dressing it up without adding anything to it?"My knee-jerk response is, "Of course." It's hard not to think of all deliberate retro as being as empty as the late-1990s' so-called "swing revival," which felt faddish and generic, particularly following the 1996 film Swingers. (The music of the revival's biggest bands-Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy-didn't help.) But sometimes it takes a familiar setting to see or hear why something, or someone, sounds utterly new-like Winehouse's Back to Black, one of the most acclaimed albums of recent years. Still, much as I love songs like "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good," it's Winehouse's guest spot on "Valerie," from producer Mark Ronson's uneven second album, Version, where she really delivers the goods."Valerie" was originally sung by the Zutons, one of those countless British rock bands most Americans have (rightly) never heard of. But Ronson's remake goes beyond the original. Ronson's arrangement is pure Merseyside-does-Motown-mod-era British R&B à la the early Dusty Springfield records. Winehouse threatens at first to drown in her own mannerisms, but soon she's in utter control. Her utterance of the line "Did you get a good law-y-y-yer?" alone is worth the download. Until I'd heard "Valerie," I had mostly kept Winehouse at arm's length, figuring there might not be music to match the persona. As soon as it stopped playing, the adulation made perfect sense-maybe because the arrangement, which took off to the skies from a bass line nicked from the Supremes's "You Can't Hurry Love," was so obvious from the get-go.Much of the music on Version features the Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn band that has also toured with Winehouse and played on Back to Black. They're best known for backing Sharon Jones, a pint-sized 57-year-old who had sung in wedding bands for decades. The Dap-Kings expertly reproduce the sound and feel of southern soul and funk from the 1960s and 1970s, and they also play with it, tongues firmly in cheek. On a standout track from the band's 2002 debut, Dap-Dippin' With …, Jones booms out over a Latin-inflected R&B groove sounding wounded, cutting, and defiant. Then the drums and horns slip into a higher register, and the chorus hits: "What! Have you done for me lately?" Of course it's familiar: it's Janet Jackson's old hit, arranged and recorded like something James Brown would have made for his troupe of female singers.That's the trick of retro. When it works, it can radically recontextualize the present, by packaging it in a timeless way. An even better trick is to come up with something timeless of your own. While Jones and the Dap-Kings' recent 100 Days, 100 Nights has a few sharp tunes, their best album to date remains 2005's Naturally. How Long Do I Have to Wait for You is a classic R&B heartbreaker, from the guitar line to the snapping horns to Jones's touching vocal, and it stands up to any of the records that inspired it.The same is true of the string of singles issued since 2006 by the Brooklyn live-funk band Escort. One reason the group's first single, "Starlight," was my favorite of 2006 is that it hewed to an era traditionally ignored by revivalists: synthy early-1980s rollerskating funk. Sure, zillions of people have sampled Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love," but few people in the past 15 years have gone completely out of their way to sound like them. Escort may traffic in replicas, but at this juncture, they also feel timeless.That works in rock music as well. A lot of critics cited LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends" as their favorite song of 2007, and it was mine, too-but not the LCD Soundsystem version. The band commissioned a pair of cover versions of the song for European B-sides. One version, recorded by John Cale, broods nicely, but it was Franz Ferdinand's effort that knocked me over. LCD is indebted to early-1980s dance-meets-punk; Franz Ferdinand works the other side of the street, playing funk-inflected punk-pop songs. So when Franz does "All My Friends," it sounds like a rocked-up early New Order. LCD Soundsystem's somewhat astringent arrangement sealed the song off for me; Franz Ferdinand's lusty look back opened up and kept me. It married the past to the present so effectively that you couldn't tell where one began and the other ended-which is exactly what good retro needs.

Historical rock revivals:

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