Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The best pop albums of 2018: women take command!

Next month the U.S. House of Representatives will seat 125 women, a new record. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming number of them are progressive Democrats. If you needed further proof that the national zeitgeist is pointing in the direction of women empowerment and elevating them to greater heights of national recognition, there are dozens of top ten lists this year to confirm it.

Cardi B., Mitski, Robyn, Lucy Dacus, Camila Cabelo, Kali Uchis, Neko Case, Brandi Carlile, and Lindsay Jordan (aka Snail Mail) all landed on multiple top twenty lists. A number of  other women front bands who also received critical acclaim including Florence and the Machine
and Christine and the Queens. All ruled the pop/rock download charts and became darlings of the taste makers. None of them made my own top ten, but that doesn't mean they didn't catch my ear.  There was so much good music being produced by women this year that it was impossible to ignore the trend. Several of the ones who made my list have been personal favorites for many years. But any of the other names at the top of this paragraph are likely to be here in the future.

1. Dirty Computer. Janelle Monae (Bad Boy).  Her 2018 album reminded me a lot of her first full-length album, ArchAndroid, which landed on my end of the year list in 2010.  Like that one, this year's model is a concept album that bristles with confidence and skips a delicate dance between classic soul and politically edged hip hop. The Electric Lady (2013) was dance pop of the highest order. Computer is more thoughtfully developed, a dystopian fantasy which starts out with Monae's persona, Jane58621, having her memory "cleaned" at a facility run by a totalitarian government. Don't let this creepy premise keep you from enjoying an American singer/actress who is approaching iconic status. In the year of the woman, she's pop's high priestess.

2. Tell Me How You Really Feel. Courtney Barnett. (Mom and Pop).  For the third time in four years, Ms. Barnett has landed in my top three. Last year, her slacker mandate, a collaboration with Philly rocker Kurt Vile (see also below) was in the three spot. In 2015, her witty classic Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was my favorite record of the year.  If you love rock and roll sung with passion and driven by smart, snarky observations and snarling guitar licks, it's time to give her your undivided attention. Listen with an open mind to "Need a Little Time" and see if you can keep from becoming a bigger fanboy than I am.

3. Hope Downs. Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever. (Sub Pop)I guess there must be something in the drinking water of Melbourne that makes its local musicians play inspired rock n' roll. Courtney Barnett hails from Melbourne and so does this kick ass quintet, whose act I caught this summer at Johnny Brenda's. They follow the same rock template of their alt-rock Aussie ancestors, the Hoodoo Gurus: a blending of ringing guitar runs, melodies that stick in your brain and harmonies sung in that fetching Aussie accent. "Talking Straight", "Sister's Jeans" and "An Air-Conditioned Man" are the album's highlights. This album proves that indie rock is still relevant, not just in Melbourne.

4. Golden Hour. Kasey Musgraves (MCA). Musgraves is a veteran of the alt-country scene whose  first four or five albums skewed more to country than alternative. This one adopts a wider variety of genres, including dance pop ("High Horse") and the kind of airy art house pillowy vibe that Sufjan Stevens perfected (in the title track). But at its heart it still shares the sincerity and simplicity that makes country music so easy to connect with. This one is easy to like, even if country is not your bag. Crossover done right.

5. Whack World. Tierra Whack. (Interscope).  Philadelphia's hip hop artist to watch and the first of three local artists/bands worth checking out on this list. Whack turned her ADHD issues into a 15-minute EP masterpiece. The concept was simple:each song lasts just 60 seconds. Each is accompanied by a 60-second video. Fifteen songs in 15 minutes. I know from sharing classroom time with students in their late teens and from my own daughter's impatience with music that doesn't make a point by the chorus: this concept is a sonic solution to attention deficit issues. The surprises never end on Whack World but the biggest surprise is that the whole thing works as a great creative statement of purpose.

6. Bottle It In. Kurt Vile (Matador). Vile's "Loading Zones" has become one of my favorite songs of the year, a shambling head trip  through the streets of South Philly, loopy and eccentric and utterly charming. Don't miss the video version. Vile's songs are keenly observed, never feel frantic, and grow more likable with each listen. "Rolling With the Flow" and "Bassackwards" are two stoner classics in league with "Zones." You need not smoke a bowl to enjoy this one, but if you do, you'll feel the loopy glory of Bottle It In a lot more clearly.

7. Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Hop Along. (Saddle Creek Records).  Bark Your Head Off is the third album from another Philly indie rock band and easily their most accessible. Like Vile, Frances Quinlan's eye for telling detail is part of the charm of her best songs. Download "Not Abel" or "The Fox in Motion" to experience a songwriter working at the top of her game.

8. 13 Rivers. Richard Thompson (New West Records). It's hard to imagine a guy his age (he'll turn 70 in April) can make music as visceral and exciting as this. Among his peers, only Van Morrison seems as eager to add to his recorded legacy as British guitarist Thompson. If you count yourself as a fan but haven't purchased anything in recent years, this is the one that will make you remember why he matters and why you loved him. "The Storm Won't Come" (which kicks off an album full of terrific songs) may eventually rank as one of his very best.

9. Dying Star. Ruston Kelly (Rounder).  My friend Pat Feeney gets a big shout out for suggesting I give this one a try. Feeney owns Main Street Music, a record store in the Manayunk section of Philly where I frequently hear new music and find vinyl gems. He claims Dying Star is his favorite album of the past  five years. For a guy who listens to new music as much as Feeney, that's high praise. Its charms are evident on the first listen. Paste magazine compared Kelly to Ryan Adams' first band, Whiskeytown. I also hear a lot of the young Jackson Brown in his vocal presentation. "Mockingbird" and "Blackout" are standouts. Ironically, from my viewpoint, as good as it is, it's not the best new album in his own house. He's married to Kasey Musgrave, whose Golden Hour ranks at number 4.

10. El  Mal Querer (Bad Love). Rosalia. This 25-year old Spanish singer  released my favorite world music album of the year, a stunning update to the flamenco traditions of her native country. Repetitive phrases, augmented by percussive hand claps, keyboards and acoustic guitars, make for an irresistible treat. "Di Mi Nombre" is probably the place to start, but the whole enchilada is worth tasting. Mesmerizing.

In alphabetical order, these albums flesh out my favorite 20 albums of 2018: Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You;  Neko Case, Hell On; Christine and the Queens, Chris; Lucy Dacus, Historian; Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer; Ariana Grande, Sweetener; Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther (soundtrack); Mitski, Be the Cowboy; Robyn, Honey. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

mid-year pop music report: it's a Whacky World

When my son and daughter stopped by last weekend to top off Father's day with dinner at my place, Lili turned on her cell phone while we ate dessert. She and Luke soon engaged in a discussion about a local artist from North Philly they had both recently discovered named Tierra Whack, whose new "media project" had dropped two weeks earlier. I soon joined in: "What is this?" 

When I first heard it, it sounded like a clever advertisment for a fully developed album: 15 short pieces, each one only 60 seconds.  Each song was chock full of hooks and thought-provoking lyrics. In every case, the ear was begging for a taste of more candy. Was that it? The whole thing? An entire album of songs in just 15 minutes? Couldn't be: who would do such an audacious thing...play with the conventions of the timing of pop songs?

"Alot of my friends only listen to a song for 30 or 45 seconds," Lili told us. "They listen to the opening beats and the first verse and if they like what they hear, they'll listen to the chorus. But that's about it. That's as much as they want to hear." Luke then suggested that was exactly what Whack intended to do, construct an artistic "statement" that appealed to listeners close to Lili's and Whack's own age, 22.

It is music specifically intended to reach millennial pleasure seekers and media shifters who hopscotch from one engaging moment to the next on their electronic devices and whose attention is hard to hold for more than 30 seconds. This music is designed just for them and this moment and this album may well presage a new age of pop music for the latest generation of listeners. In interviews I have read with the artist since, Whack admits she made the record for people, like her, with attention deficit issues.

Whack told N.Y. Times reporter Joe Coscarelli "I have so much built up inside. To be able to put what I say into real life is just an amazing thing." Her definition of Whack World? "It's down, then up, down, then up. It's scary, it feels good, it doesn't. It's crazy, it's calm. That's exactly me. Like I was just washing dishes, eating grapes, now I'm about to go to the bathroom then I'm going to wash some clothes. Yeah. It's like a roller-coaster ride. My mom says I have - what is it, ADD. Can't sit still.....

"And my age, my generation, we get bored so easily. I know how I am - I'll listen to a new song and I only want to hear 30 seconds of it before I tell you, 'nope - trash.' I have a really short attention span, but I have so much to offer. I wanted to put all these ideas into one universe, one world. I'm giving you a trip through my mind."

The more we listened to it (three times through the entire project in 45 minutes), the more sense it made and the more I came to admire what Whack had accomplished. The Ramones created a paradigm shift in popular music in 1976 with their first, self-titled album: 12 songs in less than 30 minutes, some as short as 93 seconds. Whack's debut cut that time in half and adds three songs.

Once the entire project is viewed on YouTube, the genius of her plan becomes evident. As alluring as the song snippets are, the videos are also as eye-popping and engaging. Dan DeLuca's review of the album in this week's Philadelphia Inquirer put it succinctly: "Whack is getting attention not just because she's good. It's also because Whack World  is so weirdly and wonderfully short. The entire 15-song, 15-minute album takes the all-killer, no filler concept to an extreme."   

In the weeks since it dropped, "Whack World" has garnered high praise from a variety of newspaper critics and media bloggers, including rave reviews in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pitchfork. Some critics are already hailing it as the "album of the year". In the sense that it may change the way a new generation of media consumers listens to music, they may be right.

Whack World is, bar none, the most fascinating new development in the world of media entertainment in 2018.  See it in its entirety here:


The second best feel good music and media happening of the first half of 2018 was comedian James Cordon's drive through Liverpool with Sir Paul McCartney, doing one of his most amusing and emotionally uplifting carpool karaoke routines for the Late, Late Show with James Cordon. Cordon's hilarious everyman caraciture of a music fan singing along to drive-time oldies with a famous "passenger" has been a winning concept from the very beginning. Most of the videos clock in under 15 minutes and feature stars like Adele, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus or Stevie Wonder singing their own songs.

The latest one with McCartney takes the concept one step further. It starts with the pair on a tour of Penny Lane in Liverpool with impromptu visits along the way to places the song made famous, such as Tony Slavin's barbershop where the Beatles got their hair trimmed. Cordon and McCartney, singing the song while traversing the neighborhood, give the video a sentimental yet life-affirming performance. Viewers then watch McCartney escort Cordon through the home he grew up in and reminisce about moments in his life that lead him to write the songs the world knows by heart.  

When McCartney and Cordon exit the house, it seems as if the entire neighborhood has gathered on the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of their most famous neighbor. McCartney's generous greetings of the folks in his hometown is hard not to admire. One of the most famous men in the world is as human and likeable as he has always been. 

The locals get "the surprise of their lives" when McCartney and his band perform an impromptu mash up of several of their songs "chosen" by patrons on the pub's jukebox.

The Late, Late Night segment is 23 minutes long, but worth every second. See it here:


Besides Tierra Whack's Whack World, these following CDs (listed alphabetically, not based on merit or a personal ranking) are worth hearing and represent a sampling of the music I've been drawn to so far this year.

Tell Me How You Really Feel - Courtney Barnett  (Mom & Pop)

Black Panter (soundtrack) -- Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg / Interscope)

By the Way, I Forgive You - Brandi Carlile  (Elektra)

Hell-On - Neko Case (Anti)

God's Favorite Customer - Father John Misty (Subpop)

Bark Your Head Off , Dog-- Hopalong (Saddle Creek)

Dirty Computer - Janelle Monae (Bad Boy / Atlantic)

Golden Hour,  Kasey Musgraves. (MCA Nashville)

Hope Downs,  Rolling Black Outs Coastal Fever -- (SubPop)

Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 (EP) -- Tariq Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought of the Roots 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

In defense of John Lennon's "Imagine"

By Chuck Bauerlein 

This week a good friend of mine (Matt Stromberg, a pastor at St. George’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York) started a discussion on Facebook about his dislike of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

He wrote: “John Lennon's ‘Imagine’ is an awful song. Lennon is an amazing performer, but whenever I hear anyone else sing the song, the spell is completely broken. If I have to hear one more rich pop-star dufus croon, ‘Imagine no possessions’ I am going to gag. When I first heard the song as a kid it seemed dangerous and deep, but as an adult it just seems vacuous and inane. The lyrics sound like they were written by some teenager from the suburbs who just discovered Marx."

I was surprised to hear this but interested to read his post because I always admired the song and I knew Matt was a huge Beatles’ and Lennon fan. He wrote: "I love the Beatles, love nearly everything from Lennon, but (although I love the album) I am not really crazy about the song... the vision of this song is neither romantic or passionate. It is a world without transcendent values. A life where there is nothing worth living either. He seems to mistake peace for the absence of conflict....That kind of passivity doesn't seem like Lennon's style. I much prefer the Lennon who hovers on the edge of zealotry in 'Revolution' who can't help but whisper 'in' under his breath." 

I was surprised at the number of Matt's Facebook friends who agreed with him on his thread. Among the comments were these: that after Lennon was murdered “he found out there really was a god and a heaven that maybe he didn’t get into.” And that "it smacks of the belief so prevalent among Boomers of 'If there were no religion, we would have so many less wars'. Which is just not true, especially not in this century. I agree, it's thinking peace is the absence of conflict." And this: “Imagine that Nietzsche was right.” These comments seem to suggest Lennon's song as an attack on Christian faith. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a question thrown into the cosmos, a kind of quest to understand the divine consciousness of God more profoundly.

Surely there is obvious hypocrisy when a rock star as wealthy as John Lennon asks his listeners to imagine a world without earthly possessions. But that is precisely what makes the suggestion so powerful. It’s easy for a Woody Guthrie to make this kind of suggestion, someone who struggled all his life to feed his family while channeling his muse to change the way people think about poverty and wealth and to teach people lessons of building community.

Lennon certainly knew this sentiment would make him an easy target but he wrote it anyway. I humbly suggest to my friend that this was Lennon’s way of working out his own immense (and possibly lucky or “undeserved”) wealth and that the words of Jesus that Lennon heard at services he attended with his Aunt Mimi at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in South Liverpool had touched him. In “Imagine”, his lyric echoes one of the Christ’s most famous injunctions.

When I Googled “What does the Bible say about earthly possessions?” I came upon this link, which shows 99 Biblical verses (many in Jesus’s own words) on the idea of repudiating wealth:

To me, “Imagine” is not a song “against” religion, (although I suspect Lennon knew it might be taken that way), it is a song against religious dogmatism. I believe he was suggesting there are many paths to an understanding of the divine and that not every faith adopts a belief in life hereafter. Maybe he was influenced by his wife, who grew up practicing both Buddhism and Christianity? Or maybe he just saw the hypocrisy evident in earnest God-fearing churchgoers who believe God “loves everyone” but who openly suggest their rigid belief is the only path to an eternity in the presence of the Lord. Imagining “there is no heaven” does not necessarily mean Lennon imagines there is no God. I do not see the song (as many critics do) as an atheist manifesto.

As a number of Matt's pro-Lennon Facebook friends suggested in their comments, “Imagine” came out in September, 1971, as the war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down and when more than 50,000 American lives already had been lost. It was designed to spark consideration and discussion of the U.S. involvement in war and it asked of its listeners to imagine an alternative to global military conflict. That’s putting a lot of burden on one 3-minute pop song and asking an awful lot from his audience. The fact we are having this debate on Facebook suggests “Imagine” achieved its intended goal: it made people think.

In 2004, WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station (which caters to music aficionados and alternative music lovers) asked their listeners to submit a list of their five favorite songs. “Imagine” came in at number 2, behind “Thunder Road”. (Philadelphia is notoriously famous for its unbridled support of Bruce Springsteen.) Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came in third. In 2014, when XPN again asked listeners to list their favorite songs, “Thunder Road” maintained the top spot, Dylan’s song had surpassed Lennon’s, and "Imagine" finished in third place.

This anecdotal evidence does not prove anything about the song except it is popular among listeners of a certain age who find the kind of choices on XPN to be of their liking. But I would argue the song has enduring power and justifiably is revered for reasons that go far beyond its alluring melody. I first heard “Imagine” I was just 20 years old and struggling with the inflexible dogma of my own Roman Catholic faith. Lennon’s invocation to “imagine there is no heaven” alarmed me because I was raised in the firm belief that heaven is a real place and the alternative seemed unthinkable to me. And yes, it did feel then as if Lennon was suggesting that without heaven, could there really be a God?

I am no longer certain of that equivalency: that because God exists, there must be a heaven too. None of us know for certain what awaits us in death. Many of us have a faith that something great awaits us. My own particular faith has shifted over the years away from hell as a pit of eternal flames, into a belief that hell is the absence of divine grace and God’s presence. I also believe, perhaps naively, that there are many different and legitimate paths to an understanding of divine grace and that no one religion has any “true” claim to God. I mean no offense to any reader who is certain his or her faith will bring enlightenment or salvation.

Lennon’s song led me into a much different search for God than my parents were on and that the Roman Catholic Church dictated to me. I owe a lot to that song. And I do believe Lennon was onto something: the world would be a safer, better, holier place if we listened to our neighbors who practice faith differently than we do and if we try to see the common bonds we share in our search for divine meaning. “Imagine” made me hunger for that kind of world. Yes, I am willing to admit: I am a dreamer, too.

This was Matt’s response to my blog, which I appreciate very much:


I respect your defense and certainly don’t have a problem with you sharing it.

I intentionally didn’t focus my critique on Lennon’s song as an attack on Christianity. Some of the commentators went that way. That being said, do I think the song is friendly or compatible with a Christian world-view? Of course not. The song is not “spiritual” unless you mean in a humanistic or naturalistic way. I believe the vision of this song is a world without transcendent values. What does that mean? Lennon writes,

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

If I had to paraphrase what he was saying I would put it this way,
Imagine this world, what can be seen with eyes, is all that there is. There is no God, no invisible guiding principle to the world, just you and me. Nothing higher.  The idea of good and evil, heaven and hell, is an illusion. Good behavior is not rewarded in some after-life nor is bad behavior punished. All we have is the here and now. That is a good thing because it means we are not oppressed by controlling religious dogma and moralism. We are not placated with the hope of heaven or terrified with the threat of hell. Instead we live for this world and this moment. We are free to live our lives as we choose without the constraints of the imaginary projections of “good and evil” as defined by our leaders.

Is the song moral? Not in a traditional sense, although I don’t doubt that Lennon motivated by his own moral sense. In this view, morality is something we choose. It doesn’t exist above or below us. That is what I mean by transcendent values. Presumably that is also what Dr. Witt meant when he said, “Imagine Nietzsche was right.”

It seems Lennon believes that it is our belief that our own convictions and values exists outside of ourselves—in other words that they are universally valid—which ultimately leads to conflict, division, and war.  But why is peace preferable to war? Isn’t Lennon’s own longing for harmony and goodness transcendent? I believe without transcendent values all that is left is the will to power. Neitzsche admitted this and even celebrated it. In that world, the vulnerable are just food for the Morlocks.

Lennon’s next stanza builds on his belief that it is the imposition of our own values upon others in the form of transcendent values that is ultimately the source of all violence and conflict:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Like I said, this strikes me as odd. Are there not things worth dying for? Granted, violence is always a regrettable failure of humanity to realize its goodness, but in the face of evil surely there are things worth defending. I don’t want to kill anyone, but if it meant defending my family—my children—I would do what was necessary.  I am not much of a hawk, but I don’t see the desire to defend the true and the good as necessarily evil. The suggestion seems to be that it is our valuing of one thing good above another, our moral convictions, that leads to violence. I am all for peace, but this is an extremely misguided critique.

No, this has little to do with what Jesus taught. It does share a common conviction of the value of peace, brotherhood, and love but that only proves my point! These things are good in themselves and everybody knows them to be so. In other words, they are transcendent values!  

Probably the verse that I object to the least is the one about possessions. There is something to be said about “sharing all the world.” The Apostles were said to hold all things in common. My main objection here is that it rings somewhat hollow coming from a guy who lived in the Dakota. He wasn’t exactly Saint Francis! Which begs the question, is he terribly wrong? Should he have renounced his worldly goods and lived as a wander on the earth? Is there not a moral and an immoral use of wealth and possessions? That is a question much debated by the Church Fathers. We don’t need to get into it here.

In sum, my main contention is that a world of transcendent value is preferable to a world without them! It isn’t our belief in transcendent values that is the problem but our failure to live according to them.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The best pop music of 2017: ten albums worth hearing

In the classroom, it's becoming increasingly difficult to command the attention of my students. Before class starts, half of them have their laptops raised. After being asked to put their electronic devices away, half of them still have their laptops up, perusing the internet. Or maybe they are snagging one last YouTube listen of a favored song before I start a discussion of libel law or the latest presidential attack on "fake news" sources. Anything to distract them from the ever-shifting reality of their lives.

I understand.

In a world that constantly seems to be on fire, distractions are necessary. We flit from moment to moment: checking email; re-tweeting evermore Trump terrors; constantly texting family, friends and lovers; looking over our shoulders worried about when alt-right born again Christians will hold their anti-abortion rallies on campus or when Neo-Nazis fired up by Steve Bannon's apocalyptic rants will conduct a tiki torch parade through our sleepy, suburban borough.

Who has time for hearing more than a song or just a snippet of a song any more? Who has the  patience required of listening to an entire album? What's really the point? We all watch with increasing paranoia as the world twitches nervously on its axis, awaiting missiles from North Korea to fly over Hawaii and wonder with increasing disgust how Congress can pass a tax bill aimed at lining the pockets of billionaires at the expense of the middle class.

Well, it's Christmas time. And I've been doing this list for a long time. And there may still be a handful of folks reading this column who care as deeply about the role music plays in their lives as I do and who may be curious enough to seek out music that might actually charm them for 30 or 40 minutes, not just two. As Van Morrison once famously said at the end of a concert: "It's too late to stop now."

Herewith, then, are 10 compact discs worth finding that came out this year. Some you probably have heard already. But I promise you, there are some delightful surprises here, too. Not every album on this list will immediately satisfy your soul. Some are pretty challenging, sung in languages you won't recognize. Some so quirky they'll seem more like sonic trickery than life-changing moments. For what it's worth, however, these are the ones I have enjoyed hearing the most this year.

1. "A Deeper Understanding" by The War On Drugs. (Atlantic).  Back when I started writing this "best of the year" column, Okkervil River released my favorite album of the year two years in a row.  The War on Drugs was at the top of my list in 2014 when they released "Lost In a Dream."  This year's effort (their first on Atlantic Records and clearly the vision of its leader and songwriter, Adam Granduciel) follows the "Dream" template: mesmerizing melodies awash with interlocking guitar parts, whirling Wurlitzers and analog synthesizers that induce head nodding bliss and feet-tapping rhythms. I can't think of a major album release aimed at a pop audience since "Strange Days" by the Doors that featured a song 11 minutes long ("This is the End"), as "Thinking of a Place" does on this album. As if to tell their fans a major label was not going to influence what the band wanted to do, "Thinking of a Place" was the first song released by the band on their new label. This one, like most great albums, stands up to repeated listening and will grow on you as time goes by.

2. "Elwan" by Tinariwen. (International).  Blues music from the Mali desert for adult ears. It's safe to say my affinity for the music of The War on Drugs and Tinariwen shows me hewing close to bands that rely on swirling guitars to achieve a sense of mystic serenity. If you are a fan of the former, and haven't dipped into the pleasures of this African collective, you own it to yourself to find "Elwan" or their 2014 record, "Emmaar".  Most of the songs are sung in Tuareg, a Berber dialect, and their music bears a distinct resemblance to the guitar blues of their nation's foremost blues magician, Ali Farka Toure. American rockers Kurt Vile (who appeared with Tinariwen in February at Philly's Union Transfer), Mark Lanegan and Matt Sweeney appear as guests. If you allow yourself be transported into this universe of desert harmonies and the record's intricate, hypnotic drumming patterns, you may escape the fury of the president's tweets for an hour and find peace, if not a deeper understanding.

3. "Lotta Sea Lice" by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile (Rainy Day Records). While we're speaking of Kurt Vile, his quietly effective intercontinental collaboration with Aussie rocker Courtney Barnett was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Shipping music files across oceans and face timing with one another, the Philadelphia native managed to develop a musical partnership with Barnett that has resulted in a laconic, slacker masterpiece. Let the lazy, meandering "Outta the Woodwork" creep out of your stereo speakers some Sunday morning and you'll better understand the absolute enjoyment of doing nothing more than savoring a third cup of java while waiting for the Sunday paper to arrive on your front porch. Feel the gentle sway of a sailboat while  Vile and Barnett slur the song's central riff, "She's so easy" and forgot about those North Korean missiles for a blissful hour or so.

4. "The Order of Time" by Valerie June. (Concord). Timothy Monger's review of the new Valerie June album calls her 2017 release "an ethereal dream sequence of Americana and roots music filtered through her own unique tendancines. What's refreshing about June is her gift for nuance, working unhurriedly through tones of  Appalachian folk, gospel, blues and even dream pop without feeling the need to his listeners over the head with an overwrought delivery." Why try to improve on that? "Long Lonely Road" and "Got Soul" are standout cuts, but like the other three albums listed above this one, it's best listened to at your leisure, as a whole, if at all possible while languishing in a bathtub full of warm, soapy water.

5. "Masseduction" by St. Vincent (Loma Vista). I can't honestly say I am a huge Annie Clark fan. But my son, Luke, and another music maven associate whose opinion I trust both insisted upon its greatness. I was underwhelmed by the manufactured, disco-era drum beats of its dance tracks on initial listen. But by the third time I heard this I had to agree. It's probably the best pure pop album of the year, an alluring mix of dance floor rave-ups and confessional songs that penetrate the cultures battle of the sexes more articulately than most artists attempt. Clark's plaintive yowl on the album's title track, ("...I can't turn off what turns me on...") sounds less like a soundbite now than it did in October when the album was released and more like a feminist manifesto when the come-uppance of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and other predatory males dominate the headlines. She timed this one perfectly. If you only have the patience to hear one "of the moment" album this year, this is it.

6. "Halo" by Juana Molina (Crammed Discs). Juana Molina was once known in her South American homeland of Argentina more for her comic acting on a daytime telenovela than for her music. Now she's reaching a worldwide audience for her alluring mix of ambient, experimental psychedelia conveniently tabbed as "folktronica." If you don't know Spanish, you won't appreciate the lyrical content of these songs. Don't let that keep you from enjoying this, her seventh album. (All are worth finding if you enjoy this one). "Cosoco" and "Paraguaya" are two must-hear tracks that will put you in a trance. Don't sleep on "Halo" until you've given it a chance. Then, enjoy. It will cure insomnia. I mean that as a compliment.

7. "Black Origami" by Jlin (Planet Mu Records).  A head's up: the pleasures of "Black Orgami" will take some time to grow. This is the most experimental (maybe mind-altering) music on my end of the year list. Jlin (pronounced "Jill-in" like "chillin' ") is an African-American woman from Gary, Indiana (Jerrilynn Patton) who seems to take her inspirational cues from the sonic repetitions of street musicians like Nigeria's Konono No. 1. This is a drummer's delight, an infatuating blend of electronic bells, whistles and loops, bassy reverb, turntable twists and turns and vocal yips and yaps without anything remotely approaching song. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like music that thinks outside the box, you need to experience Jlin.

8. "Heavy Meta" by Ron Gallo (New West).  I caught Gallo's blistering "Heavy Meta" set in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia last month and my ears still feel as if they are bleeding. (I wore ear plugs, too!). No album was as unabashedly fun to listen to or Philly's urban street life as humorously or keenly observed as this brash nod to the glory days of CBGB's New York punk scene.  On the album's first cut (my favorite song of the year) "Young Lady You're Scaring Me" Gallo laments falling for a psycho chick with tongue in cheek angst: "let's get a house, you and me and me and your 12 cats. We'll put mirrors on the ceiling, we'll have a bunk bed by the bath."  It only gets weirder (and more wonderful) after that.

9. "Uyai" by Ibibio Sound Machine (Merge).  If I owned a convertible, this great Afro-pop dance album might have sparked two dozen spontaneous street celebrations during the course of the summer of 2017. Ibibio Sound Machine's lead singer and primary songwriter, Eno Williams made the best dance trance party record of the year, an upbeat mash-up of Nigerian '70s funk and LCD Soundsystem. Backed by an 8-piece band, heavy on brass, "Uyai" is kicked off by a dancehall call to arms, "Give Me a Reason." I can think of no better reason to turn off FOX or CNN and to revel in the glory of a pop song than this.

10. "New Kind of Normal" by Cayetana (Plum Records). If you can resist the post-punk feminist charms of Cayetana's "Mesa" or ""Scott, Get the Van, I'm Moving" you are a better man than I am. She wasn't on my radar in July when this nifty three-piece all-girl band from Philadelphia played XPN's World Cafe and I am kicking myself for missing all the glorious fun.  They remind me a lot of Ex-Hex, a three-piece band that made my list several years ago. A brash debut. Can't wait to pull out those well-worn Ron Gallo ear plugs and find Cayetana in a local club. See you there! First round is on me!

These are my second ten favorite albums of 2017, in alphabetical order:  "Cubafonia" by Dayme Arocena; "Bedouine" by Bedouine; "Americana" by Ray Davies; "Soul of a Woman" by Sharon Jones and the Dap-kings; "DAMN." by Kendrick Lamar; "Gargoyle" by Mark Lanegan Band; "American Dream" by LCD Soundsystem;  "Melodrama" by Lorde; "Semper Femina" by Laura Marling; "Resistance" by Songhoy Blues.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Last night's story slam at the Side Bar featured this great tale!

Jim Breslin asked me to hhelp judge last night's story slam event at the Side Bar. This winning story by Kennan Flanigan is worth watching!


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When Black soldiers fought back against police brutality 100 Years ago in Texas

Members of the 3rd Battalion, 24th infantry at Camp Logan in the summer of 1917

By Chuck Bauerlein

Aug. 23 marks the 100th anniversary of a watershed moment in race relations in the United States. On this day in 1917, in Houston, 156 members of the all-black 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry (famously known as the Buffalo Soldiers) went on a racially charged rampage that took the lives of four soldiers and 15 white civilians. It remains the only race riot in U.S. history in which more whites than blacks were killed.

Four months later, after the largest court martial in the nation’s history, 13 black soldiers were summarily hanged at Camp Travis, San Antonio. Observers at the court martial said -- and historians later confirmed -- there was no reliable eyewitness testimony that any of the executed men participated in the riot.

Sixty-three other members of the 24th Infantry received life sentences. In September, 1918, six more black soldiers -- who witnesses said had fired on white civilians -- were also hanged.

The arrival of black troops in Texas in 1917, the height of the Jim Crow South, was ill-advised. In preparation for World War I, the Army decided to build 32 training facilities across the country. Houston won a $2 million contract to construct one of the camps.

City fathers requested that no black soldiers be stationed in Houston. Many whites feared the vision of armed black soldiers would provoke among "local blacks ... a desire for better treatment,” according to an unattributed report on a Prairie View University historical link. Black soldiers believed their service should result in civility from  local whites.

Although Houston officials promised there would be no racial trouble, the police department was well-known for its abuse of blacks. Within days of their arrival, black soldiers began to refuse to take seats at the back of Houston public transport trolleys. These acts soon were labeled “insolence” by white Houstonians and predictably led to harsh treatment from police.

On the night of Aug. 23, the Chamber of Commerce had planned a “watermelon party” for the black soldiers. Instead a race riot ensued. Trouble started that morning when police officers Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels (both known for their brutality of blacks) pursued a man accused of participating in a dice game into the home of a local black woman.

They arrested the thinly clad woman and accused her of hiding the gambler. When a black soldier asked Sparks if he could get clothes for the woman, Sparks pistol-whipped and arrested him.
Later that afternoon, Cpl. Charles Baltimore of the 24th inquired about the soldier's arrest. He too was beaten by Sparks and fled when fired upon. Baltimore was caught and taken into custody.

Rumors that an angry white mob was heading to Camp Logan soon reached the soldiers. Although ordered to stay inside their barracks, the black soldiers broke into a supply tent, took weapons, and began firing randomly into the night after someone shouted “Here they come!”

More than 100 soldiers headed for the police station to liberate their comrades. Historians believe they were led by First Sgt. Vida Henry, who initially tried to dissuade the soldiers from seeking retribution but eventually joined them. One of the first victims of the night was a white child, felled by a stray bullet.

Another casualty was Capt. J. Mattes of the 2nd Illinois field artillery. The soldiers dragged him out of a car and shot him, believing him to be a policeman. Soon after realizing their mistake, the rioters began to disperse. Henry, the ostensible leader of the mutiny, died of self-inflicted wounds.

The next day, 118 black soldiers were arrested, charged with murder and mutiny, and moved to a stockade to await court martial.

Court martial trial of 118 black soldiers at Camp Logan, 1917. 

It is easy to look back on events of 100 years ago and see how the racial taunts of Houston’s white residents and policemen created a climate of abuse that led to the soldiers' mutinous behavior.  No one can defend what those soldiers did that tragic night. And neither can we ignore the fact that some of the initial 13 executed soldiers paid the ultimate price for crimes they may not have committed. In the Army’s rush to judgment, they were scapegoats, used to send a message to American blacks that violence would only beget more violence.

Most Americans today believe that blacks and whites can live in harmony and that all Americans, regardless of their race, religious affiliation, sexuality identity, or social class, should have the same opportunities to a life of peace and prosperity.

When President Trump recently refused to criticize hate groups for the violence in Charlottesville, he was met with public rebukes from the four leaders of our military branches. This shows a different military than the one in Houston in 1917, and how far the nation has come in the century since racial tensions in a Southern city turned tragic.

But the events in Charlottesville themselves, and the disagreements about how to deal with our still-festering problem of racial bigotry, also show how far we have to go.

Chuck Bauerlein is a professor of journalism at West Chester University. cbauerlein@wcupa.edu

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mid-year pop music report: 10 CDs worth finding from the year so far

Should world music artists be included on a "pop music" report? That's a question I find myself pondering lately as my interest in true Billboard-style top 40 acts wane and I find my ears drawn to different sounds, textures, beats and, yes, even languages I cannot immediately comprehend.

I am aware that adults long have complained about the musical tastes of younger generations of listeners. This had been happening long before the age of rock 'n roll stunned my own parents. Did Bach and Beethoven advocates complain when their kids raved about Gilbert and Sullivan operas? You bet. Did Dixieland fans resent their kids bringing beebop into the home? Of course. 

When your granddad's Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs and Bob Wills 78s were deemed passe in lieu of your dad's devotion to those lowbrow beer-swillers and pot smokers, Willie, Waylon and Merle were voices raised and fits thrown?  I have no doubt.

Yet even as my appreciation for my 21 year old daughter's contemporary R&B / hip hop playlist has evolved and deepened, I still find a lot of today's auto-tuned hits hewing too closely to cookie cutter formulas and inane sentiments. 

Maybe it helps I can't always know what Juana Molina is  singing about in her Spanish-language songs. Maybe knowing the subject of the song would seem as trivial to me as Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber's "Despacito", which ruled the charts for most of June and is also mostly sung in Spanish.  "Despacito", catchy as hell, sold millions of digital downloads. But ultimately the song's ubiquitous popularity makes it as irredeemable as Lou Bega's chart topper "Mambo No. 5" became in 1999.

Once you dig into the hypnotic, electronic mood induced by the subtle percussive click-clicks that start the first track of Molina's new album, "Halo", you'll realize you're hearing something uniquely engaging and possibly life-changing: the way immersing yourself in a foreign culture can do. 

At any rate, below are 10 CDs I that have captivated my ears, engaged my attention for repeated listenings, and opened my mind to new possibilities of how music can make me feel. I have little doubt at least three or four of these albums will rank among my favorite CDs of the year. These are listed in alphabetical order, so you can judge for yourself. 

Dayme Arocena -- "Cubafonia" (Brownswood Recordings"). 

Regarded as one of Cuba's finest young singers, Arocena's second full-length album shows a highly versatile singing voice  and plays to the strengths of her Cuban band. Brassy, bold, immanently danceable and, always, fun. If you love Cuban music (count me among the island's fans), this one belongs in your collection. (A big shout-out to my son, Luke, for knowing I would dig this and for giving it to me on Father's Day!)

Ron Gallo -- "Heavy Meta"  (New West) 

Philadelphia's own Ron Gallo (formerly of Toy Soldiers)  has released my favorite rock n' roll record of the year and what might be my favorite song, "Young Lady, You're Scaring Me." Fuzzy guitar crunch, a kick ass support band, and a lead singer who's found his voice with material that shows a hard-earned streetwise sensibility. If its hard rock edges seems like musical nods to the Stones, the Faces and T. Rex, you won't get any complaints from me. This one continues to grow on me.

Ibibio Sound Machine. "Uyai." (Merge)

If you can imagine a band that seems to channel both Nigerian club music from the 1970's with James Murphy's LCD Sound System, fronted by a dancing dervish, you have some idea where Ibibio Sound Machine is going. Places. Dance floor places. Lots of them. Checkout the percolating rhythms of "Let's Dance" or  "Give Me a Reason" and see if you can resist the many charms of Eno Williams, singing in ibibio, the native language of southeast Nigeria.

Valerie June. "The Order of Time" (Concord).

June plows the fertile fields of Americana music more quietly than many other musicians but her voice is distinctive and seductive and I'm willing to bet her Appalachian, blues-based sound (and that amazing head of hair!) will launch her into a far longer career than many other bands who find the genre convenient as a trendy peg. Not quite alternative; not quite blues; not quite country. Just Valerie. Plenty enough.


Kendrick Lamar -- "DAMN." (Interscope)

Lamar's follow-up to 2015's influential hip hop masterpiece ("To Pimp a Butterfly") is grittier but just as compelling. His social commentary about growing up black in a nation that elected Donald Trump president is likely to feel as relevant in 2050 as Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron sound today.

Laura Marling -- "Semper Femina" (More Alarming Records) 

Marling's quest to meld her own introspective feminist sensibilities with a desire to increase awareness of global women's issues make this a political album for people who don't want their pop stars to be spokespeople. This, Marling's sixth record, compares favorably to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and "Court and Spark." Like those classics, this one feels like it will be around a while.

Juana Molina -- "Halo" (Crammed Discs). 

The high priestess of Argentinian electronica has released another mesmerizing collection of hypnotic dance pop. As good as the records are, her rare live performances are as magical as they are memorable. This, her first release is more than four years, is worth the wait. Buy it.

Chris Stapleton -- "From a Room" (Mercury). 

Although it clocks in at only 32 minutes, these nine songs are among the best Nashville has produced this year.  The album sounds sparse and introspective, compared to the 2015 CMA Album of the Year winner, "Traveller".  I would suggest giving two rowdy rockers a listen ("These Stems" and "Second One to Know" before you fall for his softer side ("I Was Wrong"). His long hair and beard suggests he's mining Jamey Johnson's act, but his singing reminds me more of Ronnie Van Zant.

Tinariwen -- "Elwan"  (Epitath).

I had to teach the night they played XPN's World Cafe stage and were joined by Philly's own Kurt Vile. I'm still kicking myself for not cancelling class. It would have been the right thing to do. Tinariwen hails from the Saharan desert of northern Mali and their multi-layered guitar attack owes a lot to blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure, their countrymen. If you wish to become immersed is a new meaning of the blues, try "Elwan" for a spin. You'll thank me.

War On Drugs -- "A Deeper Understanding" (Secretly Canadian). 

It won't be released officially as an album for two more months (August 25th is the official drop date). But if the two new songs -- "Thinking of a Place" and "Holding On") -- XPN has put into its rotation are any indication, this one will be another guitar blitz masterpiece. They are playing the Dell Music Center on Thursday, Sept. 21st. Hope to see you there!