26 February 2011


30. Original Cast Recording – HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
Avoiding the bloat and phoniness that has plagued many a rock musical, John Cameron Mitchell’s glam cabaret act drew from various recognizable influences but transformed them into something new: personal yet engaging, his songs (co-written with Stephen Trask) not only brim with a sassy wit and an earned poignancy, they also convincingly rock.

29. The Darling Buds – EROTICA
The final album from these feisty Brits had the misfortunate to come out around the same time as Madonna’s similarly-titled effort, thus dooming it to obscurity and cut-out bins across the land. Too bad--their sublime dream pop version of My Bloody Valentine wrapped layers of guitars and tart hooks around Andrea Lewis’ playful, knowing vocals.

28. Fiona Apple – WHEN THE PAWN…
Apple wears her neuroses on her sleeves but doesn’t always shy away from trying to figure them out. This can be intimidating for those looking for instant gratification from a pop song. The thing is, once you rationalize her methods with her obvious melodic talent and lyrical prowess, no matter how long it takes for a song to sink in, once it does, it’s unshakable.

27. Aimee Mann – WHATEVER
The girl with the braid from Til Tuesday surprised everyone with this solo debut: uncommonly mature, elegant and sharp, it didn’t receive a fraction of the radio airplay it deserved. Although the slick, bright production dates it more than Mann’s subsequent work, it’s also intriguingly devoid of the wry bitterness Mann would make her stock in trade.

Formerly of Deee-Lite (whose WORLD CLIQUE just missed cracking this list), Tei promisingly kicked off a solo career with this playful set that could be summed up by the song title “Technova”: colliding electrobeats with Antonio Carlos Jobim and featuring a who’s-who of ‘90s bossa nova acolytes (including Bebel Gilberto), it’s breezy yet stimulating fun.

25. Seal – SEAL (1991)
His gradual descent into Adult Contemporary Hell makes this now 20-year-old debut all the more remarkable for its unadulterated weirdness: it’s almost as if he can’t decide whether to be a dancefloor belter, soulful crooner or enigmatic seeker, so he’s a little of all three, often on the same song.

24. Pizzicato Five – THE SOUND OF MUSIC BY
Japanese studiomeisters pillage a selection of decidedly American songs and rev it up past the postmodern mark until it resembles either a TV game show theme or a Burt Bachrach strung out on pixy stix. However, with elusive diva Maki Nomiya at their disposal, they spin ample gold out of so much sugar.

23. Jellyfish – BELLYBUTTON
Sounding like Squeeze and early Cheap Trick at possibly the least coolest time ever to do so, this admittedly silly-looking outfit made gushingly irresistible music that encompassed psych-pop, Brill Building craft, bubblegum, The Beatles and even a little bossa nova–and it remains more durable than you’d ever expect.

22. Saint Etienne - GOOD HUMOR
Varying from their usual cultivation of instrumentals, film snippets and other experimental detours, this very British trio hooks up with the producer of The Cardigans and affectionately gazes back to late '60s/early '70s AM radio heaven. Vocalist Sarah Cracknell also displays an ever deeper, more versatile tone that fully complements the songs' puppy dog warmth.

Against charges of insincerity and excess cleverness, Folds initially had the talent and tunes to answer his distractors, plus the depth and finesse to prove them wrong. If a rant like "Song For the Dumped" remains a little crude (if riotously cathartic), somber, more pensive numbers like "Evaporated" and surprise hit ballad "Brick" still reveal the vulnerable soul behind the smart-ass.

24 February 2011


No longer crossing my fingers for a middle-aged masterpiece from this woman given her recent dubious exploits, I’m still thankful I’ll always have this brash, clever, bratty song cycle to return to: a raw, arresting, unapologetic blow-jobs-and-all account of a 26-year-old woman in a male-centric world.

39. Cibo Matto – VIVA! LA WOMAN
If Yoko Ono had collaborated with the Beastie Boys, this sample-heavy concept album about food might have materialized. Goofy, surreal and occasionally menacing (all at once on “Birthday Cake”), it makes me nostalgic for a time when MTV would air something so deranged, even if it was only on 120 Minutes.

38. Ani DiFranco – LIVING IN CLIP
Since her many, many studio albums only sporadically nail down her onstage energy and presence, this double live album remains an essential overview, even more so for capturing the spontaneous, intimate, mesmeric vibe of being there like few other live albums.

37. Jill Sobule – JILL SOBULE
The original, way better “I Kissed a Girl” is only an entry point into an enchanting world of sketchy boyfriends, mysterious co-workers, daydreamers and other lovingly drawn winning losers - it's a shame her Major Record Label didn't help her much in becoming more than a novelty one-hit wonder.

36. Sam Phillips – CRUEL INVENTIONS
A more introspective and acidic Phillips emerges on her second secular album. Like ever-shifting puzzles, the songs simmer with both lyrical and musical intricacies, but they never obscure such olive branches as a gorgeous Van Dyke Parks string arrangement or a declaration like “If I told myself I believed in love and that’s enough, I’d be lying.”

On their full-length debut, this French female-fronted trio comes off less like the pop sophisticates they would evolve into and more like Mazzy Star at a slightly quicker tempo…which proves a brilliant idea once the actual songs emerge from the overall heavenly, atmospheric gauze, hitting their targets with gentle aplomb.

Many fans loathe her two ‘90s albums produced by now ex-husband Mitchell Froom, but I love how his elaborate, quirky settings occasionally scrape against her clean, unfussy vocals. Here, her lyrics seem particularly inventive as they craft unique metaphors out of such standard subjects as sexual attraction (of various shades) and maternal love.

Witter and wiser than most alt-rock chicks of her time, Boston-based Trynin deserves to be more than a footnote. Her second (and final) album crosses Chrissie Hynde (at her most self-assured) with Joni Mitchell (at her most confessional). It actually rocks while projecting vulnerability and subtlety, which perhaps is why it has aged so well.

32. Massive Attack – MEZZANINE
Their first two albums invented and perfected trip-hop, but their third proved far more prescient. Suffused with an encroaching dread verging on decay, it negated any feel-good optimism of its time, instead anticipating the darker days ahead. And yet, it’s all so seductive and alluring—not for nothing did “Teardrop” become a TV show theme song.

31. K.D. Lang – INGENUE
Never a genre conformist, Lang’s shift from country to torchy adult pop still radiates bravery in an environment where far too many artists allow themselves to be boxed into neat, identifiable packages; it also succinctly creates a special, singular space for her nuanced, dramatic voice.

22 February 2011


Here's a long-delayed follow-up to my oughties list. 14 years old when the '90s began, I cannot stress enough how important the decade was in cultivating my taste in music. You can read more about that here. For now, here's # 50-41:

50. Mary Lou Lord – GOT NO SHADOW
On this former Boston-area busker’s most endearing album, lush, polished arrangements and melodies cancel out her vocal limitations while preserving her charming naivete. It's a well sequenced set of songs (including a definitive cover of Freedy Johnston’s “The Lucky One”) that nails her amiable persona just as well as her on-the-street performances.

49. Jeff Buckley – GRACE
You may never need to hear his startling but overplayed rendition of “Hallelujah” again, but Buckley’s only real album still seems gloriously out of time: tender, torturous, melodramatic, beguiling—not even a kindred spirit like Rufus Wainwright has come close to topping it.

48. They Might Be Giants – FLOOD
John and John’s third LP transports me back to my 18-year-old Geek Self – despite the bargain-basement soundscapes and bad puns, I can’t deny its abundance of miniaturist triumphs, from the nagging, insistent “Particle Man” to perfectly quirky pop centerpiece “Birdhouse in Your Soul”.

47. Sleater-Kinney – DIG ME OUT
In which a female power trio build on the neat-in-theory concept of riot grrrl rock by displaying real musicianship and enveloping intricate twin guitar lines and vocal parts into hookier-than-fuck songs. During a decade largely absent from energetic, fun stuff of the Violent Femmes/B-52’s variety, this deftly filled a void.

46. Echobelly – ON
As I tire of revisiting certain old favorites, I’m increasingly drawn back to second stringers that never really made it, like these Brit-pop also-rans. Fronted by an enticing female Morrissey impersonator, their tart, crunching guitar rock could’ve been a crack, less fey imitation of The Smiths high on a sugar rush.

45. Tori Amos – BOYS FOR PELE
Initially baffled by this sprawling, double album length set of often angry, crazy songs liberally sprinkled with harpsichord, lyrical non-sequitors and cathartic wailing, it took years to decipher it as a ‘90s equivalent to Kate Bush’s THE DREAMING - it creates a similar mood, even if the landscape sounds a thousand miles away.

44. Beth Orton – TRAILER PARK
A shifting template of acoustic and electronic elements gives Orton’s debut tension and texture, but her voice compels and commands even as she threatens to drift away altogether. She never achieved such a stasis again, and I’m still perplexed and intrigued as to how she pulled it off.

43. The Negro Problem – JOYS AND CONCERNS
Always difficult to pin down, Stew bends and twists disparate genres to fit his unique worldview. A song about a network news anchor morphs into a psychedelic near-freakout, a playful ditty about an iconic toy ponders its homosexuality, and so on, but you never doubt Stew's sincerity toward his subjects.

If rock and roll is youthful by nature, then Rigby, in her late 30s when she cut this solo debut, never had a chance of becoming more than a cult artist. Fortunately, she effortlessly connects with anyone willing to listen, whether she’s wistful and sweet (“Beer and Kisses”) or swaggering and defiant (“20 Questions”).

Speaking of encroaching middle age, this “mature”, mostly orchestral work from a veteran new wave combo brims with more life than all of the young bands heavily influenced by their earlier work, thanks to often scathing, occasionally poignant, always eloquent ruminations on aging gracefully and honestly.

18 February 2011


As I enter a new age bracket (in some questionnaires, anyway), this neatly sums up what I'm feeling today.

12 February 2011


Vacation photos, part 2! Since St. John does not have an airport, we had to fly into St. Thomas. We didn't spend much time there - it felt a little too busy, full of junky gift shops and cabbies harassing you for a ride at every corner.

Sleepy, remote St. John was more our speed. Most nights, we left the resort to have dinner in funky Cruz Bay, the island's only town of sorts (Coral Bay, on the island's other end, is more of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village, complete with goats blocking traffic on the highway).

Not the island's most picturesque spot, Cruz Bay nonetheless has its charms...

...such as this colorful residental space, organically tucked into a plaza full of restaurants and little shops.

I took this pic for the "N' Mo" and received an additional, one-of-a-kind sign (on the left) as a bonus.

Even shopping complex Mongoose Junction, the town's most blatant tourist destination, seems unique and constructed to blend in with the surrounding landscape.

One day, we rented a jeep so we could explore the rest of the island. It proved a challenge - not only do people drive on the left side of the road, the roads themselves are among the steepest and curviest I've seen.

Overlooking Maho Bay (yes, the sea appears this gorgeously blue everywhere there).

The Annaberg sugar ruins, which overlook this:

A few shots of lovely Leinster Bay, with views of the British Virgin Islands in the distance:

Another day, we took a ferry to Virgin Gorda, which is part of the British V.I. Our resort, Caneel Bay has a sister property there called Little Dix Bay. The trip took a little over an hour and offered some stunning views along the way, such as this majestic house on a rock...

...and this cool, old vessel.

After wading through customs and immigration, we boarded a taxi - note its awning, reminiscient of a 1970s lawn chair.

Our first stop was The Baths, which first required a ten-minute walk down to the sea...

...followed by another ten minutes wedging one's way through (often ridiculously narrow) caves.

Fortunately, the destination featured some spectacular views.

A high surf prevented us from doing much swimming or snorkling, but it was still worth the trip.

Afterwards, we cabbed over to Little Dix Bay for lunch. It's a beautiful property, as you can see in the pictures below, but Steve and I preferred Caneel Bay's more spacious layout.

My favorite part of the whole vacation? Sitting here at Little Dix Bay for about a half-hour, watching the waves and letting any remaining stress just dissolve away. This is why we went to the Virgin Islands.