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.

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!