Wednesday, March 31, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Use Your Illusion I,’ Guns N’ Roses (1991)

I guess if you can release two albums on the same day and sell about 1.5 million copies total, then who am I to say no? But had they restrained themselves, Guns N’ Roses maybe could have taken a run at a second all-time classic record. Instead, they put out two that are merely mediocre.

While GN’R varied their sound a bit on this disc, there’s still just too many fast rockers. Unlike “Appetite for Destruction,” where each track had its own identity, by the end of “Illusion I” it becomes difficult to understand why “Perfect Crime,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Garden of Eden,” “Double Talkin’ Jive,” and “Back Off Bitch” all had to appear on the same record. And that’s not even touching the truly wretched “The Garden” and overblown theatrics of “Coma.”

It’s not all bad, thankfully—these guys were too talented to uncork a total flop. “Right Next Door to Hell” is a great opening track, with an Alice in Chains-style bass riff to lead off; “Dead Horse”—once it finally gets going—reminds of “Out Ta Get Me”; "Bad Apples" is pretty good, if you can make it that far into the disc; and “You Ain’t the First” and “Bad Obsession” are admirable—if middling—steps outside the band’s tried-and-true hard rock.

“Use Your Illusion I’s” true value, though, comes down to three tracks: the mega-hit ballads “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain,” along with an inspired cover of “Live and Let Die.” But only three great songs out of 16? That’s bloated rock-star excess of the worst kind and a lesson in what might have been.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Live and Let Die”

Least Favorite Track: “The Garden”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Wilco (the album),’ Wilco (2009)

Was Jay Bennett as important to Wilco as Jeff Tweedy? The evidence is mounting.

Bennett, who died suddenly almost a year ago, was fired from Wilco after the band finished recording its best and most acclaimed album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” That was also the last great album the band made. I do not believe in coincidences.

After Bennett’s death, I recently re-watched “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the 2002 documentary filmed during the creation of and subsequent drama resulting from “Foxtrot.” Director Sam Jones, to this viewer, portrays Bennett as the bad guy in the band, because he wouldn’t just shut up and get along and get the record done, already. Why did he have to question every little thing?

But eight years and three albums later, it looks more like Bennett was exactly what Tweedy, Wilco’s founder, frontman, and primary songwriter, needed: Someone to challenge him, to argue with him, to examine every little detail. From the (albeit limited) footage of the “Foxtrot” recording sessions included in the film, Bennett seems to be the one doing all the hard work, breaking all the boundaries, “destroying” all the songs, as Tweedy puts it. Bennett’s the one putting mics in weird places and creating sounds out of disparate sources. Certainly Tweedy’s songs are at the heart of that record, but was it Bennett who needled and pushed those tracks to their full potential, creating a modern classic in the process? When Bennett is quoted toward the end of the film saying he believes Tweedy couldn’t handle having a star in the band other than him, it rings more with truth now than the bitterness it did years ago.

And that brings us to “Wilco (the album),” released last month. The band Tweedy has assembled around him now is a powerhouse, to be sure, most notably with lead guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Onstage this lineup is something to behold; if you want proof, take a spin through 2005’s double-disc live album, “Kicking Television.”

But just because they can bring it onstage doesn’t mean they’re equally compelling in the studio. I’ve never recorded an album before, but it seems to me those are two totally separate worlds, and rare are the bands that live in both equally well. Wilco is a better live band now than it’s ever been, but the latest album from these well-mannered, utterly professional musicians is rather … dull.

If I had just one chance to try and make someone a Wilco fan, “One Wing” is the only song from the new album I’d even consider; no others stand out as exceptional. “Bull Black Nova” is maybe the best of the rest, but even that seems a pale experimental representation of prior glories and is a bit too reminiscent of the aimless wanderings of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”

Tweedy sounds bored. For a man who’s forgotten more memorable melodies than most musicians could hope to write, there’s a plodding nature to these songs that reeks of staleness. I love the music of “I’ll Fight,” but the lyrics … ugh; “Solitaire” has pretty harmonies but goes nowhere; “Everlasting Everything” is an epic in search of a purpose; and even the enchanting Leslie Feist can’t wake “You and I” out of its drowsy slumber.

There are some better moments, though: “Wilco (the song)” is catchy and appreciably self-effacing; “You Never Know” has an “Everyday People” punch to it; “Sonny Feeling” is a nice throwback to the easygoing nature of “A.M.”; "Deeper Down" is mildly intriguing; and I’ve already mentioned “One Wing,” clearly the best song on this album and the only one that really gets my blood pumping—I love the intro, especially.

To answer the original question: Tweedy is without question the heart and soul of Wilco, and he is a wonderful, captivating musician and songwriter. One of my all-time faves. He is Wilco, and Wilco is him. But his body of work, which dates back two decades now, points to an artist who thrives on conflict, who needs to be challenged, who isn’t at his best when comfortable. Back in the Uncle Tupelo days, Tweedy was the one challenging the tried-and-true hard-country methods of bandmate Jay Farrar; years later, Tweedy then gets pushed further out of his own genre-defying comfort zone by the idiosyncratic Bennett. The results in both cases are brilliant, but ultimately each was cut short by clashing egos and purposes.

It’s not a new tale; everyone from Lennon and McCartney to Big Boi and Andre 3000 suffered similar fates. But that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate—or frustrating. And it certainly doesn’t make for better Wilco albums.

Jay Bennett, you are missed.

Grade: C

Favorite Track: “One Wing”

Least Favorite Track: “Country Disappeared”

Monday, March 29, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Sky Blue Sky,’ Wilco (2007)

This marked yet another dramatic shift in sound and tone for Wilco. The “alt-country” label is long gone by this point, and the experimental affectations of more recent work is jettisoned, as well, in favor of more straightforward ’70s-era rock and folk. This is the simplest Wilco music since the band's debut 12 years earlier—and that’s not a bad thing.

“Either Way” sets the pace immediately, as the album-opener may be one of the most uplifting/positive songs Jeff Tweedy’s ever written. That makes way for two of the band’s best songs: “You Are My Face” still reminds me of Pink Floyd with its majestic movements and delicate harmonies; “Impossible Germany” is a guitar manifesto, maximizing all of Nels Cline’s considerable talents for the first time on a Wilco record.

There are some other harder rockers on this disc, but none are as satisfying. “Walken” is fun in concert but not as much in the studio, while “Side with the Seeds” is a bit disjointed. The other standout tracks on “Sky Blue Sky” are quieter affairs, starting with the folksy title track. “What Light” plays like a Bob Dylan song as Tweedy looks inward to examine how art takes on a life of its own and the musicians just have to deal with that. And the final track, “On and On and On,” builds to a big climax that works exceedingly as a complement to “Either Way.”

Once again, though, Wilco misses Jay Bennett in the studio here. These songs all sound a bit too perfect, too measured, too careful; like “A Ghost Is Born,” "Sky Blue Sky" comes off a bit close and claustrophobic, like the recordings were done inside a sterile padded room. A bit more space to roam would have been nice.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “You Are My Face”

Other Favorite Track: “Impossible Germany”

Least Favorite Track: “Leave Me Like You Found Me”

My original review of “Sky Blue Sky” is posted here; I didn’t go back and read it before writing this one.

Friday, March 26, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Kicking Television,’ Wilco (2005)

How could I crush an album yesterday, then glorify many of those same songs 24 hours later? Easy: Wilco’s current lineup is a killer live band, as this live album aptly demonstrates.

Given room to breathe on stage, most of the songs from 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born” move up an entire letter grade, at least. All of the angst is burned off by the spotlights, and Wilco just … plays. “The Late Greats” basks in the glow of bigger power chords; “Hell Is Chrome” is full of bluesy fire; “Wishful Thinking” is so engagingly mournful it would sound at home on “Summerteeth”; “Hummingbird” turns into a massive singalong; “Muzzle of Bees” makes room for both intricate acoustic guitar and a fuzzed-out electric solo at the same time; even “Handshake Drugs” is more interesting here.

And that’s just “Ghost” songs. The “Foxtrot” cuts are even more rewarding, especially “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” powered by the thunderous drumming of Glenn Kotche. Nels Cline, meanwhile, tags an epic solo on the end of “Ashes of American Flags” that turns a formerly good song into a Wilco classic.

Though the two most recent albums dominate this two-disc set, the deeper cuts are mostly unassailable, as well. Wilco will never go wrong opening with “Misunderstood”; “Shot in the Arm” and “Via Chicago” are choice “Summerteeth” choices; and the back-to-back combo of “One by One” and “Airline to Heaven” from the “Mermaid Avenue” discs serve a reminder for how great that project was.

The only problem is the 17 minutes of wasted time at the end of Disc 2. I know the band loves “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” but they could include three other songs in the time allotted for this one mediocre piece. It’s then a shame that such a wonderful collection ends flat with the poor cover selection of “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers).”

Overall, though, “Kicking Television” demonstrates what a fabulous live band Wilco has become. This compilation is an essential piece of the band’s catalog.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

Least Favorite Track: “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)”

For more of my thoughts on this general Wilco topic/moment in time, check out my concert review from 2006 here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘A Ghost Is Born,’ Wilco (2004)

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” took a while to grow on me, but it obviously won me over. “A Ghost Is Born” never really has. I’ve come to appreciate it more than I did originally, but that’s more from hearing these songs live than anything the actual CD accomplished on its own merits.

The album’s a mess. The better tracks have little energy: Off the top of my head, I still can’t hum the melodies to “Hell Is Chrome,” “Muzzle of Bees,” “Hummingbird,” or “Wishful Thinking.” “Kicking Television” proved these songs all worthwhile, but on this disc they’re pounded into sonic obscurity by claustrophobic production to the point where they barely register.

Meanwhile, the songs that do have a musical pulse unfortunately feature some of Jeff Tweedy’s worst-ever lyrics. “I was chewing gum …” starts the overlong “Handshake Drugs” (and has there been a worse outro guitar “solo” on a Wilco record than the one that emanates out the back end of this track?); “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 …” drones “I’m A Wheel”; “Theologians don’t know nothin’ about my soul …” opines “Theologians”—over and over and over again; and I’ve always had a hard time telling whether “The Late Greats” is supposed to be a joke or not, and, if so, on whom. “At Least That’s What You Said” features a great riff, but the 2 minutes of tepid barely-audible melancholy you have to sulk through to get to it are almost not worth enduring; this song wants to be “Misunderstood” and falls way short.

And then there are the two albatrosses that weigh down their respective sides of the album: “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Less Than You Think,” both excessive studio filler in their own unique and painful ways.

The hands-down best song on “A Ghost Is Born” is “Company in My Back,” which holds its own against the Wilco catalog with twinkling grace. Everything else on this album with potential for redemption had the life sucked out of it in the studio.

Grade: C

Favorite Track: “Company in My Back”

Least Favorite Track: “Less Than You Think”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ Wilco (2002)

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is now surrounded by so much lore, the reason for all that buzz can get lost: This is a great album.

When the weakest song out of 11 is “Radio Cure,” then Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had something going very right in the studio, even if whatever that was ended up separating them. This album is either good or great at every turn, with a perfect mixture of simple, catchy rock and roll and dense, challenging work. One thing’s for sure, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is never boring; all of that variety leads to rewarding listens even many years later, where a song like “Poor Places" can all of a sudden jump out at you once you’ve finally moved past all the more accessible stuff.

It was written so well in the first place, the excellent live version of Wilco we have today builds on that amazing framework and takes these songs to even greater heights, specifically “Ashes of American Flags” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I also love the narrative flow to the record, which finds Tweedy acknowledging his own faults in the opening track, then on finale "Reservations" recommitting himself to, I'm assuming, his wife. Ironically, one of Tweedy's most plainspoken love songs concludes one of his most difficult albums.

This is one of many reasons why “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” only gets better with age.

Grade: A+

Favorite Track: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

Least Favorite Track: “Radio Cure”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Mermaid Avenue Vol. II,’ Billy Bragg & Wilco (2000)

Though not as flamboyantly good as its predecessor, this second volume of Woodie Guthrie via Wilco is still solid on the whole. “Airline to Heaven” is a ramshackle highlight right off the bat in the mode of devil-may-care Dylan, while the deeply somber and moving “Remember the Mountain Bed” is one of my favorite Wilco moments in their entire catalog. Natalie Merchant returns, as well, and delivers another standout performance in “I Was Born.”

The other guest vocalist on “Vol. II” doesn’t fare as well. Corey Harris’ reggae twist on “Against Th’ Law” marks the beginning of a four-song run where this disc goes awry. Bragg brings it back together, though, with haunting penultimate track “Black Wind Blowing” that’s as good as any of his songs from these sessions.

Overall, the “Mermaid Avenue” project was a brilliant sidestep for Wilco. Going back to these tracks this month makes me wonder why they aren’t on more of a regular rotation, because many are among the band’s best work.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Remember the Mountain Bed”

Least Favorite Track: “Against Th’ Law”

Monday, March 22, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Summerteeth,’ Wilco (1999)

Wilco’s third proper album overflows in memorable melodies. To these ears, there are seven gold-standard, five-star songs here, comprising some of the best work Jeff Tweedy’s ever done (thanks to his collaboration with Jay Bennett).

What stand out the most, though, among all this excellence are the little moments: the harmonica solo from “She’s A Jar”; the fuzzy start to “Shot in the Arm” that leads to a few bars of pure piano; the high-pitch whine from “I’m Always in Love”; the “doo doo, doo doos” from “How to Fight Loneliness”; and my favorite spot on the entire CD, the transition from “Via Chicago’s” deconstructive ending to the shimmering guitar/synth beginning of “ELT.”

You have to really pick some nits to find flaws on “Summerteeth.” Sure, maybe “My Darling” and “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” isn’t the best one-two combo on earth; maybe “We’re Just Friends” is a momentary momentum-killer; maybe I still don’t understand the need for a “Shot in the Arm” reprise at the end of the disc; but … come on! A charmer like “Candy Floss” is buried at No. 16—that’s how great this disc is. Even my least favorite track, “Pieholden Suite,” has that wonderful fanfare outro.

This is Wilco’s pop/rock masterpiece. Though I slightly prefer the other masterpiece that followed a few years later, it’s easy to make the argument “Summerteeth” is Wilco’s best album.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Via Chicago”

Least Favorite Track: “Pieholden Suite”

Friday, March 19, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Mermaid Avenue,’ Billy Bragg & Wilco (1998)

Working from a set of unreleased lyrics from Woodie Guthrie, Wilco’s inspired collaboration with Billy Bragg yielded a handful of the band’s best songs, which continue to pop up in live sets more than a decade later. Their two standouts from this disc are the lilting “California Stars” and soaring “One By One.” Other highlights include “At My Window Sad and Lonely” and rollicking “Hoodoo Voodoo.”

Bragg certainly isn’t to be overlooked on this album, either. “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” may be the best song of the entire collection (it should sound familiar to anyone who knows The Gaslight Anthem’s “Red at Night”), and all 1 minute, 51 seconds of “Ingrid Bergman” is arresting stuff. Natalie Merchant, meanwhile, made a fan out of me immediately with her ethereal background vocal on “Minor Key” and lead take on “Birds and Ships.”

Though Bragg was the originator of this project, it’s Wilco who drive these songs home. Their blend of folk, country, and rock is all over tracks like “Hesitating Beauty,” “She Came Along to Me,” and the rousing “I Guess I Planted.”

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”

Other Favorite Track: “One By One”

Least Favorite Track: “Christ for President”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Being There,’ Wilco (1996)

If I could only pick one physical Wilco CD to have for the rest of my life, the first disc of “Being There” would be it. These 10 songs are my favorite collection in the band’s history, from majestic opener “Misunderstood”; a trio of perfect all-out rockers; wonderful ballads including “What’s the World Got in Store”; and excellent changes of pace like “Forget the Flowers.” Disc 1 of “Being There” crystallizes everything I love about Wilco.

The second disc ain’t half bad, either, but it doesn’t have the taut focus of the former. Though “Sunken Treasure” starts the Disc 2 out on a momentous high note, the rest has a looser, tossed-off, b-side feel to it. Highlights here include concert staple “Kingpin” and the delicate strains of “Someone Else’s Song” and “The Lonely 1.” But the disc suffers a bit from rehashed “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” and the rambling, backward-looking “Dreamer in My Dreams.”

Grade: A-

Favorite Tracks: “Monday”/“Outtasite (Outta Mind)”/“I Got You (at the End of the Century)”

Least Favorite Track: “Why Would You Wanna Live?”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘A.M.,’ Wilco (1995)

On Tuesday, March 30, I’ll be attending “An Evening with Wilco” at the Strathmore in Bethesda (fifth row—whaddup!!!). To prepare myself for what I hope will be a momentous occasion, CD of the Day from now until then will go through the entire Wilco catalog, starting with …

Wilco’s debut album starts off as well as you could possibly hope, with three of the band’s best-ever songs. “Casino Queen” is the high-water mark here, but you can’t go wrong with any of these choices.

The rest of the way isn’t nearly as exciting or dynamic. Taken individually, none of the final 10 tracks are bad, but as a whole they blend together into a mush of plodding, sad-sack country that grows a bit wearisome by the end. Though “A.M.” is a fine start, Wilco had much greater things in store.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Casino Queen”

Least Favorite Track: “That’s Not the Issue”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Battle of Los Angeles,’ Rage Against the Machine (1999)

My Rage Against the Machine phase ended abruptly on Sept. 11, 2001. Since that fateful day I have rarely found the urge to pop in a CD from a band who seem to hate the country that’s made it filthy rich, spewing communist propaganda against a capitalist system the bandmembers had no problem using to their individual advantage.

So, yeah, it’s been awhile since I’ve listened to “The Battle of Los Angeles.” It holds up pretty well, balancing the raw-nerve emotion of their 1992 eponymous debut with the slicker, more concise radio-friendly fare from 1996’s “Evil Empire.” “L.A.” is anchored by three of the band’s best tracks, “Guerilla Radio,” “Testify,” and “Sleep Now in the Fire”—it’s no accident these were hit singles.

But as typically happens with Rage albums, this one wears out its welcome by the end. Listening straight through, it all starts to blend into one big Tom Morello riff around Track 9, “Voice of the Voiceless.” Finale “War Within a Breath” gets special notice for its U2 shoutout, though.

“The Battle of Los Angeles” was inarguably Rage’s most accomplished album at that point in their career, technically superior to anything they’d done before with some truly great songs. I just sorta … grew out of it.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Guerilla Radio”

Least Favorite Track: “Ashes in the Fall”

Monday, March 15, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘On My Way,’ Ben Kweller (2004)

Ben Kweller is a master of many styles, and he puts them all on display here. He hits everything from Replacements-esque trash rock (“The Rules”) to folk (“On My Way”) to pop/rock (“My Apartment”) to big-chord classic rock reminiscent of The Who (“Down”). He even takes a stab at a “Hey Jude”-type piano ballad (“Living Life”).

The only drawback to “On My Way” is Kweller’s voice, which can wander and sound strained when he goes for high notes just a bit out of his range. He also tends to fall into the same trap as latter-day Ryan Adams, caterwauling over top of the melody at times rather than syncing with it.

Nevertheless, “On My Way” is a fine record, and laid the groundwork for my favorite Kweller release, the self-titled effort that came two years later.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “I Need You Back”

Least Favorite Track: “Hospital Bed"

Friday, March 12, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Your Favorite Weapon,’ Brand New (2001)

Brand New’s debut is one of my favorite pop/punk albums of the decade. They were Fall Out Boy before Fall Out Boy even existed, and if they’d stuck to this formula, who knows what kind of success they might have had.

Instead, the band moved away from the straightforward, uptempo, I’ve-just-been-dumped, post-high school material of “Your Favorite Weapon.” Ultimately, that was a good artistic choice (see 2006’s “The Devil and God Are Waging Inside Me”), but future efforts don’t diminish what an excellent record this is, even if it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done since. Everything about “Your Favorite Weapon” is big: big chords, big choruses, and big drums, all evoking outsized predecessors like Green Day and Weezer. And it features more melodic variety than is standard for the genre; you can actually tell the difference between these tracks.

“Your Favorite Weapon” never hits a weak patch. If you’re a fan of this brand of punk, you owe it to yourself to hear this CD.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Mix Tape”

Least Favorite Track: “The No Seatbelt Song”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Three E.P.’s,’ The Beta Band (1998)

Rob Gordon didn’t sell just five copies of this album in “High Fidelity,” he sold at least six because I went out and bought it as soon as I saw that movie. (Yes, that’s three “HF” references of late—I love it.)

As the name clearly states, this disc is a collection of three different EPs that have widely varying levels of accessibility. The first, “Champion Versions,” is the best. It features “Dry the Rain,” the mesmerizing song featured in the movie, and heavy-percussion instrumental “B + A.” There are diminishing returns the rest of the way, however.

The second EP, “The Patty Patty Sound,” is mostly experimental noise with the focal point being 16-minute-long “Monolith.” The third EP, “Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos,” returns to something resembling actual songs. The highlight here is the minimalist chanting of “Dr. Baker.”

Overall, “The Three E.P.’s”—and probably The Beta Band, in general—isn’t for someone like me, who came to this CD hoping for more from where the spectacular “Dry the Rain” came from. "Champion Versions" gets an A-, but as a whole "The Three E.P.'s" earns a …

Grade: C+

Favorite Track: “Dry the Rain”

Least Favorite Track: “Monolith”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Dissident’ EP, Pearl Jam (1995)

It’s hard to fathom now in the age of torrents and other online repositories of live music, but in 1995 high-quality bootlegs were hard to come by—and expensive. So the six live tracks—professionally recorded and officially released, no less—included on this CD single were a huge gift to Pearl Jam fans.

And what cuts they are! Culled from the band’s legendary set at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on April 3, 1994, these tracks remain the only official documentation of that show, and that period in the band’s career. My favorites are “Release” and “Why Go,” but it’s also refreshing to hear “Rearviewmirror” and “Even Flow” before they became the bloated elder statesmen of current PJ sets. And on “Deep,” Eddie Vedder unleashes an inner fury that's rarer today.

The only drawback is, strangely enough, the title track. “Dissident” is one of my least favorite Pearl Jam songs, and here you have to sit through it both in the official version and the live version from the Fox show. Nevertheless, this EP—with its awesome “Not To Be Confused With More Expensive (Idential) Import Version” sticker on the front (the original was released in 1994)—remains a rewarding listen.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Time Out of Mind,’ Bob Dylan (1997)

It takes Bob Dylan a while to get going on this album. The first four tracks on “Time Out of Mind” are rather dull, something you typically don’t associate with one of the most acclaimed songwriters ever ("Dirt Road Blues" is certainly my favorite for this section).

Not until No. 5, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” does he start to sound like the rejuvenated Dylan I’ve come to know and respect over the past decade. “Heaven” is one of two excellent ballads on this CD, the other being “Not Dark Yet.” Everything’s OK from there until you hit the last track, “Highlands.” I don’t care who you are, a 16-and-a-half-minute song is nearly impossible to justify.

I know I’m spoiled by the work Dylan’s done since, but “Time Out of Mind” doesn’t quite measure up. Listening to this album I can better understand why Dylanphiles went so insane with joy over “Love and Theft” four years later.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”

Least Favorite Track: “Highlands

Monday, March 08, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Superunknown,’ Soundgarden (1994)

The first three tracks on Soundgarden’s masterwork comprise one of the best runs of any album from the ’90s. It doesn’t get much more awesome than “Let Me Drown,” “My Wave,” and the clincher, “Fell on Black Days.”

And that’s just the first 14 minutes. Still to come: “Superunknown,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” and “The Day I Tried to Live.” The breadth and depth of this record still amazes.

My only quibble is what I call the “dirge” songs: “Mailman,” “Head Down,” “Limo Wreck,” “4th of July,” and “Like Suicide” all feature a variation of a dark, electric growl that sounds a little too similar when heard all in one sitting. “4th of July” is my clear favorite of this group, and none are unsatisfactory on their own, but leaving one as a b-side might have been a good idea. But this minor complaint is more than made up for by the disc’s perfect sequencing and pacing; “Superunknown” is never boring, even now after hundreds of spins.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Fell on Black Days”

Other Favorite Track: “The Day I Tried to Live”

Least Favorite Track: “Like Suicide”

Friday, March 05, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Cold Mountain,’ Various Artists (2003)

I didn’t choose an Artist of the Aughts, but this soundtrack is yet another reason why Jack White could’ve topped the list. He contributes five heartfelt folk songs to the set, with “Never Far Away” my favorite of the group (it would sound at home on a Stripes CD, too—think "We're Going to Be Friends"). “Cold Mountain” provides White yet still another avenue for a musician apparently quite capable in any genre he chooses.

He’s not the only charmer, however, on this more subdued cousin to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” disc from a few years earlier. The beloved Alison Krauss (another Artist of the Aughts!) provides two exquisite, breathtaking tracks, which were both nominated for Academy Awards. My favorite cut of all, though, is a rousing a cappella chorale from the Sacred Harp Singers called “I’m Going Home.” But just about every selection, under the leadership of T Bone Burnett, is welcome.

The soundtrack’s only drawback is the stereotypical orchestral accompaniment from the film. In contrast to the authenticity of the folk songs, these doses of melodramatic, mediocre Hollywood syrup waste 15 minutes of an otherwise excellent compilation.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: "I'm Going Home"

Thursday, March 04, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ Alanis Morissette (1995)

Everyone already has a well-formed opinion on this album by now, right? How could you not? Anyone my age or older was surrounded by this record whether you wanted to be or not. Listening through it now still instantly brings to mind flashes of those omnipresent videos: the car ride from “Ironic”; the extreme closeup from “Head Over Feet”; the scary, hair-in-my-face Alanis from “You Oughta Know.”

“Jagged Little Pill” is a quintessential pop album in that its singles are stellar, and anything you didn’t hear on the radio was basically filler. But unlike most pop albums, there are more than just a couple good songs here. In addition to the aforementioned videos, don’t forget about the luscious “You Learn,” trippy “Hand in My Pocket,” and sinewy opener “All I Really Want” (OK, the latter wasn’t technically a single, but it still got played on the radio).

Complaining about the rest of the disc after all that seems a little silly.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “All I Really Want”

Least Favorite Track: “Perfect”