Listening to every single thing that comes across my desk is by and large a painful, if not soul-killing, experience, but occasionally a few diamonds land in my lap that wouldn't get there any other way. Although most of these CDs are by artists you've probably never heard of (I hadn't), a couple come from neglected but trusty warhorses.
1. Altamont, The Monkees' Uncle (AntAcidAudio): So what happens when Dale Crover of the Melvins, one of the best drummers in rock, fronts his own band? Well, based on the evidence here, he makes you wonder if his pal Buzzo was ever actually necessary: Monkees' Uncle sounds like the most varied and accessible Melvins disc since the band left Atlantic a decade or so ago. Fuzzed-out psychedelia, great big guitar riffs and tongue-in-cheek metallurgy might be out of style, but if you're a fan of QOTSA or Ween (or if you remember that there was a time when the Butthole Surfers were something other than utterly pathetic), this just might help push back the tide of your personal apocalypse another hour or so.
2. Rusty Anderson, Undressing Underwater (Surfdog Records): Proof positive that the making of pop music should be left to the professionals. Undressing Underwater is super-duper hooky, confident and smart pop rock by a session-guitar dude who's worked with E. John, P. McCartney, etc. So much for indie cred, but fuck that noise: Don't underestimate the pleasures of fresh production and actual musicianship. Some of this is not un-Crenshaw-like in a post-Weezer mode. There's plenty of quasi-clever, offhand lyrics like Mama used to make, backed up by ELO-ish keyboard flourishes and '80s power-pop distortion. Of course, the deck was always stacked against this record burning down any barns (old guy, musical talent, wide palate), but that don't mean it ain't great.
National year-end reivews
3. Buttercup, Sick Yellow Flower (Buttercult): Here's a left-field, self-released CD by a charming, ambitious-sounding retro-pop band from San Antonio. These guys profess a late-'60s Kinks influence in their press materials, and you can actually hear it on "In Spain" (a title shared with one of my favorite dB's songs, but no relation). "Parallax View" is casual, busy, hesitant, catchy and jazzy all at once. Extremely cool.
4. Vic Chesnutt, Ghetto Bells (New West): Nobody paid much attention to the USA's weirdest living songwriter this year -- and that's too bad, because his 2005 disc is fantastic, boasting arrangements by the great Van Dyke Parks and guitar from the also-great Bill Frisell. Opening track "Virginia" is a pained, hilarious and inexplicably hooky dirge, while "What Do You Mean?" manages to elucidate on the subject of inarticulation ("like a puppy on a trampoline...") and "Little Caesar" obliquely sums up the current presidential administration. Americana, indeed.
5. Daddy, At the Women's Club (Cedar Creek): It took a while for At the Women's Club to win me over, but "I Miss Ronald Reagan" is the very definition of rueful, and it's hard to argue with a lyric like "I'd be havin' nightmares if I could only sleep." Plus, "theses" rhymed with "feces" is downright admirable, especially in a song about Martin Luther.
6. The Ebb and Flow, Time to Echolocate (Three Ring Records): I was initially tempted to compare this San Francisco-area band to Bongwater and Thinking Fellers Union, but Ebb and Flow is a little more accessible than either of those antecedents. True story: When first listening to track one, I found myself surreptitiously visiting the band's website to see if the chick singer was cute (which is something in itself, coming from my jaded rock-crit ass). Then, when the second song proved to have male vocals, I liked it just as much, despite knowing for sure that the guy was in no way cute.
7. The Gena Rowlands Band, La Merde et Les Etoiles (Lujo Records): In John Cassavetes's gritty 1971 comedy Minnie & Moskowitz, Gena Rowlands gets drunk after watching a screening of Casablanca and tells her friend, "You know, I think movies are a conspiracy. They set you up to believe in...everything." Thirty-odd years later, Bob Massey names his band after Cassavetes's widow and croons, "I hate you, Spielberg...Eisner...Katzenberg...all my best memories are lies." Coincidence? Ha! This whole tortured, tuneful disc seems to dwell, nodding and half-drunk, in the Late Show glow of a TV set in some darkened one-room apartment. Every song is great, but the cycle reaches its apotheosis of media-abetted romantic alienation on "Kong Meets His Maker (A Parable About Dating)," in which Jesus Christ Himself lovingly attends to the last mortal moments of a certain lovelorn giant ape. Superb!
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8. OOIOO, Gold and Green (Thrill Jockey): Osaka's once-mighty Boredoms may well have drifted off into the annals of "hardcore trance," but their drummer (and Flaming Lips muse) Yoshimi Yokota has maintained her penchant for orchestrally complex sound cycles with her all-girl side-project-turned-main-gig OOIOO. This CD came out a few years back in its native country but only saw the light of day in the U.S. this year; it was a time-delayed ray of sonic sunshine in a bleak post-punk landscape.
9. Tarbox Ramblers, A Fix Back East (Rounder): Swingin' and grimy, traditional blues and folk and gospel structures acting as repositories for calculated, mindless, old-timey filth. Some things are hard to comment on, even harder to dislike. Think Jon Spencer without the randy posturing. Or late-period Nick Lowe leading a garage-country band. Or maybe Johnny Dowd, if he wasn't quite so proud to be insane.
10. Loudon Wainwright, Here Come the Choppers (Sovereign Artists): Loudon Wainwright started off the year on a bandstand in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, jamming in period clothes with his hot-shit son Rufus and up-and-coming daughter Martha, both of whom were to outshine their dad in the ensuing twelve months. It must be a bittersweet irony to find yourself overshadowed by your own children, but Loudon Wainwright is nothing if not an expert in bittersweet ironies. If we all slept on the umpteenth "album" by everyone's favorite insensitive singer-songwriter, it's our loss: There's a veritable cornucopia of great stuff here, but the pick hit is easily "Hank and Fred," in which our anti-hero hears about the death of Mr. Rogers while driving through Alabama, bursts into tears and winds up at Hank Williams's graveside. You can't make this stuff up -- only Loudon can.