Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Mayer of Simpleton?

Why America? Why buy cds by John Mayer? Have we run out of acceptable choices? Is it because John Mayer, as a local dj put it, is the Sting of the 00's? Mayer, in absence of any relevant product from the Sting / Gabriel / Clapton / Winwood cartel, has stepped into the breach to offer a totally white bread piece of "product" that can entice not only the original purchasers of those records ("Mom") but also ensnare their offspring in this celebration of mediocrity. My biggest problem with Mayer... he's got no songs! (Note: Mr. Mayer must be given mad props for his alleged liaisons with Ms. Simpson and Ms. Love Hewitt).

Please treat yourself to something rather than the same old, same old. You want options? You've got Amos Lee, Justin Timberlake, Lindsey Buckingham, The Killers, The Killer (Jerry Lee), Beyonce, Sparklehorse, Dylan, Ludacris, Ben Kweller, Fergie, Wolf Eyes, the Decemberists, Jet, My Morning Jacket's double live, Gnarls Barkley, the Lemonheads, Janet Jackson, Beck... so many choices either in the stores now or next week. And if you want to take the advice of one mean old coot - go to your local cd store (in Philadelphia - Main Street Music in Manayunk - Think Indie!) Tuesday (10/3) and buy the new Hold Steady cd Boys and Girls in America. It's gonna be massive.

Just anything but the Sting of the 00's.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Boogie Shoes

After five of the more personally traumatic days of my life (we’re all friends here, but I won’t burden you with my troubles), I stopped by the local big box to pick up the new Yo La Tengo album. On the way out, I saw a display with The Best of KC and the Sunshine Band for $7.99. You may call it a sale on B-list greatest hits packages. I call it proof of the Divine.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rhyme and Punishment

Rock and roll history is littered with bad lyrics, but no big whup, it’s not like our favorite bands are populated by Nobel laureates. Still, every once in a while, a verse comes along and sparks the notion that punishment, up to and including incarceration, should be available for the most heinous offenders. The tipping point in the Lyricist Prison Movement has been provided by former blues youth prodigy Jonny Lang. Now all grown up, Lang’s new song “Anything’s Possible” (which details how he overcame the odds to make a handsome living playing guitar) drops this bomb:

Martin Luther King
Did some beautiful things
All because he had a dream
Just like you and me

Really, shouldn’t someone have to pay for that?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Format - Dog Problems

Two months ago I had never heard of the Format. Now I can’t live without them. The Format are two high school buddies – Nate Ruess and Sam Means – that have conjured up a latter day Pet Sounds, the record Lloyd Dobler would have made had he taken up guitar instead of kick boxing. In what appears to be a song cycle about one volatile relationship (is there any other kind?), the Format throw everything in the mix to create the album to beat this year. Soaring harmonies, handclaps, orchestral arrangements, melodies seemingly plucked from show tunes and the astonishing clarity of Nate Ruess’ choirboy tenor all come together to produce a blue spark of a record.

How can I convince you to buy this record? It’s got the quirks and sophistication of XTC, the broken heart of classic Jackson Browne, the giddiness of early 70’s AM radio and the timeless quality found in your favorite records. I got these guys as complete nerd perfectionists obsessed with not only Beach Boys/Beatles popadelia but Brill Building craftsmanship and the timeless melodies of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. I'm hearing all that in 3 to 4 minute pop songs. And how long does someone have to be around before you can start calling him one of rock’s best singers?

I think my infatuation with these guys (and right now we are doing some serious necking) is that no influence is too grandiose or too dated to be messed with. Usually this type of kitchen sink production comes off fey and precious. These guys make it seem effortless... which is what the great ones do, don't they?

Buy this record. Today.

You can thank me tomorrow.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

True Confessions

Trip’s inclusion of Uncle Tupelo in his list reflects his pitch-perfect taste, and revives a mildly painful memory for me. Perhaps confessing it will help.

I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia from 1986 to 1993, a period that subsumed Uncle Tupelo’s existence as a band. And Columbia was the Tupe’s home away from home, as they frequently made the short jaunt from St. Louis to play the Blue Note, a hot spot for indie music. In one span of about three years, the band must have averaged one or two shows a month (at least) in CoMo, meaning that I probably had fifty chances to catch them live.

I saw them once.

I have many excuses for this (some of them pretty decent), but they all seem so stupid now. The seed of the movement was germinating within walking distance of my house, and I missed it. I could have been at ground zero of a scene, could have written a book, could have witnessed the development of one great band that would spawn two more. But I was at the library, or in bed, or drinking cheap beer in a bar where a soon-to-be legendary band very conspicuously was not playing.

By the time I saw Uncle Tupelo, they had two albums under their belt and were on the verge of releasing a third. They had begun to move away from their rollicking cowpunk roots, toward something more professional and sophisticated. When Jay Farrar sang the traditional “Moonshiner,” I was convinced I was in the presence of a major talent, and it was obvious that Jeff Tweedy was growing out of the junior partner role he had filled on No Depression and Still Feel Gone. Jay was all about Mississippi River mystique, but Jeff was beginning to trek down the Thames, his vaguely English melodic gifts starting to bubble to the surface. It was obvious that they were something special, and I’ll treasure having seen them once, even as I rue missing them all those other times.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

My local radio station (Philly’s WXPN) posits the following - Who are the greatest musical artists of all time?. And truth be told – I have no idea. It all depends on your vantage point – when were you born, where did you grew up and who were your co-conspirators and influencers (did I just make up a word?). It is well-known and heavily documented (by me and my brothers) that your musical tastes are developed between the ages of 10 and 25. By 25, music for most folks becomes less and less important as they have real lives and tend to them like normal human beings. And then there’s the rest of us. My musical formative years, according to my theory from 1967 to 1982, certainly informs every one of my choices. I was weaned on a steady diet of my older sisters’ Beatles, Stones, Monkees and Motown records. Add Elvis and Chuck Berry… and the die was cast.

So what follows are my favorite musical artists of all time. Are they also greatest? They are to me. My vote comes from the heart (David Jo and not Elvis!) and not my head (yes I know Chuck Berry wrote the book, gave us the template… but I’m still puttin’ alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo on my list). As Yo La Tengo recently and succinctly put it – I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.

1. Bruce Springsteen – When Bruce Springsteen walked out on the Tower Theatre stage in December 1975, this vote was locked up. Without a doubt Bruce is my favorite rock musician… I make no apologies. I honor and respect Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, Chuck Berry – but you can only have one favorite. His songs are literate, passionate and joyous - and with that other worldly yowl he was the rock and roll savior I didn’t even know I needed. He was the next step in a logical lineage that went from Elvis to Fogerty to Bruce, continued on with Westerberg and Earle and still lives today in my current favorites Jesse Malin and the Hold Steady. His output has been all over the stylistic map – the “new Dylan” of Greetings, the channeling of Van Morrison on The Wild, The Innocent… and the ultimate statement Born to Run, which melds rock’s first 20 years and spits out something that sounds completely original. BTR was almost bettered by Darkness on the Edge of Town, where the lovable losers searching for a way out realized they weren’t going anywhere… and that realization somehow became heroic. Since Darkness Springsteen has made a few classics (Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Rising) but has always been consistently challenging. As a veteran of many Springsteen shows, his true genius has been delivering magical, mystical, galvanizing revival meetings masquerading as rock concerts… it’s at these shows that he cemented his # 1 rank. Maybe if I had seen the Beatles….

2. Rod Stewart – Before banal disco cash-ins and the strafing of American pop classics, there was a time when Rod Stewart may have been the greatest of them all. In the heady days from 1969 to 1973, he was the driving force behind 7 stone classics (the first 4 Rod Stewart records plus the three Faces records). Every Picture Tells A Story was the first album I ever bought. To this day, I walk a little taller when I hear “I combed my hair in a thousand ways, But it came out looking just the same”.

3. The Beatles – Way to go out on a limb. I really can’t add much to the Beatles lore. All I can say is they produced the greatest pop music the world has ever seen. Don’t even try and argue with me – as I said before, I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. They had the greatest songwriters, the greatest harmonies, the right producer and melodies that seem to have sprung forth from pop heaven. How about this... I think the Beatles are underrated. I still play Something New, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Beatles For Sale, Abbey Road, Help, Let It Be and they still thrill me – every time. And oh yeah… “In My Life” is the greatest song ever written.

4. Creedence Clearwater Revival – The American Beatles. They were timely and political without preaching...wrapped up in absolutely perfect 3 minute songs. John Fogerty is right up there with Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, Springsteen and Westerberg on the short list of great American rock songwriters. In three years they had 13 top 10 singles (they rivaled the Beatles for the artistry of their A and B sides) and then band democracy, bad career decisions and a classically bad early contract sent Fogerty to the sidelines with artistic and emotional difficulties that have never fully healed. Six albums in three years and they were done.

5. Bob Dylan The greatest American songwriter. His influence is pervasive in just about everyone else on this list. His 1962 to 1966 output should be required listening for any rock novice. He’s made great records since but nothing touches those records. They seem too good… how did he string those words together? Where did that melody come from? Omigod… that voice – possibly the greatest in all of rock for serving the song? That voice forever broke the mold of how people could sing. You’re welcome Tom Waits. Tip your hat Mr. Springsteen. I’ve pored over his lyrics, studied his records… obsessing over every detail. I still hear new ideas in 40 year old records and I’m never truly sure what he’s on about. And if you get me drunk enough, I’ll show you the one poem I ever wrote… in high school. Inspired by Dylan, I’ve not read it in at least 25 years. That’s how good Dylan is… he got me to write poetry.

6. The Replacements – What if you combined the Faces’ drunken outrageousness with Springsteen’s working class romanticism, mix in Dylan’s prodigious lyrical gifts and then add Beatle worthy melodies? You just might have the Replacements. Bursting out of the heartland with punk’s fury but aspiring to be Rod Stewart, Paul Westerberg led the finest American band of the 1980’s. My god… Let It Be, Tim, Pleased to Meet Me… these records are American classics. This is the band I wanted to be in… and I still do. (Paul… call me).

7. Jackson BrowneLate For the Sky was my high school and college soundtrack – always there when I needed a friend. First date… play some Jackson. Trying to seal the deal… a little Jackson. Friend sick… commiserate with Jackson. Heartbroken… wallow with Jackson. If he only wrote “For A Dancer”, he earned a place on my list. But there is so much more. If you think I placed him too high – play Jackson Browne, For Everyman, Late For the Sky and The Pretender next week. Then come back here and we’ll talk. Because…quite honestly – I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.

8. The Hold Steady – Two scorchers already and the next one promises to change your life. Don’t worry… I don’t really think these guys are better than the Rolling Stones. The truth is… I always wanna hear the next great song, the next great band. Right now, theses guys are it. Rock and roll endures – when someone tells you there’s no good bands anymore, play them the Hold Steady. If they don’t like them… beat their ass. When I was a kid, I remember fretting that maybe there wouldn’t be any more good songs. It amazes me that I still find manic pop thrills 30 years later. This spot could just as easily have gone to Jesse Malin, Rilo Kiley, Lucero or The Format.

9. Steve Earle - Without Steve Earle, I would never have considered listening to Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and George Jones. Without the genre bending Guitar Town (1986), I’m sure I would have missed so much great music. Since hitting rock bottom in the early 90’s, he has been possibly the finest American songwriter over the last 10 years. His comeback from a severe drug addiction and a jail term have been one of the great second acts in pop music.

10. The Rolling Stones – Excepting Dylan… no one artist has made as many great records that have wormed their way into my heart. Mick and Keef… Keef and Mick. They have been able to adapt to the musical landscape and remain relevant in ways no other bands have. The Beatles may have produced the greatest records, but the Stones are the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

11. The Clash – With apologies to London Calling, the Clash’s 1976 debut is the essential punk record. Seemingly sprung forth fully formed, The Clash crystallized everything I loved about music and seemingly destroyed everything I hated about it. Joe Strummer was punk’s soul and conscience… I miss him.

11. David Johansen – Once referred to by one wag as a “fun junkie”, David Johansen was the linchpin of the mythically brilliant and influential New York Dolls. While sometimes tagged as a second rate Mick Jagger, David Jo is Mick’s equal as rock showman. His first solo cd alone would merit his inclusion on my list, with unfathomably great songwriting including the great Dolls breakup song “Donna”, the celebration of music that is “Frenchette” plus the great side openers “Funky But Chic” and “Cool Metro”. Essential.

11. The Persuasions – Formed in Brooklyn over 40 years ago, the Persuasions have carried the a cappella torch with their breathtaking, often thrilling vocal arrangements. Lead singer Jerry Lawson is an R&B blues shouter in the great tradition of Otis Redding… you owe it to yourself to check out his singing at least once. (Personal note: When my wife and I got engaged, we went to see the Persuasions a few weeks later in a small club. We scrawled a request on a napkin noting our recent engagement. The band brought the two of us up on stage, sat us on chairs and promptly serenaded us with an astonishing version of the Dreamlovers 1961 hit “When We Get Married”). Pretty cool.

11. Uncle Tupelo – Could mixing the bracing rush of punk rock with the staid conventions of country music really have seemed a good idea in 1990? I guess if you lived in Belleville,Il it did. Uncle Tupelo delivered 2 radically different but gifted singer-songwriters while crafting four uniformly excellent lps from 1990 to 1993. And then they were gone. And no one has been able to carry that alt-country flag better than Uncle Tupelo… and Tupelo off-shoot Son Volt’s Trace may be the genre’s defining statement.

11. X – The best American punk band had it roots in the same country traditions as Uncle Tupelo. The gloriously ragged yin/yang and teetering on the edge of collapse harmonies of John Doe and Exene, the pulverizing staccato riffs of Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake’s big beat combined to make X the quintessential American band of the 1980s. Think Jefferson Airplane… with better songs and anchored by Doe’s world weary blues croak.

11. Marshall Crenshaw – A new wave Buddy Holly? His first record is an enduring classic that he's never bettered. Every record since then has contained a few gems…. and his uncanny knack for short, concise pop nuggets has rarely faltered. While keeping a steady touring schedule, Crenshaw has not released a new studio record since 1999’s snappy return to form # 447. Perhaps it’s time for a rediscovery of this unsung hero?

11. The Ramones – Loud. Fast. Rules.

11. Prince – Up there with Stevie Wonder in the r&b pantheon, has anyone been as consistently innovative and challenging while shifting mega units as Prince? He makes the list for that incredible 80’s run from Dirty Mind (1980) through Lovesexy (1988). He’s a master soulman, a classic rocker, he brings the funk, an R&B balladeer, bandleader extraordinaire, ace producer, shit hot guitarist, top echelon songwriter. And he’s only 5’2”!

11. Elvis Costello – Possibly the only artist (along with Bowie) to give Prince a run for his money for stylistic jumps over the last 30 years, Elvis Costello is a celebrated songwriter and an underappreciated singer. His early troika (My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces) started his now long career with a big bang he’s never quite equaled. But each Costello rlease remains an event - Elvis is King!

11. Scott McClatchy – How can you watch your little brother make three excellent records with little acclaim and not put him on your list? This is the same guy who couldn’t sleep without a light on… and he does what I wished many times I could do… plays guitar and writes great songs. He truly makes me proud.
Waiting on the Countdown

Despite the fact that I’ve never lived within a thousand miles of the Liberty Bell, my favorite radio station – thanks to a broadband connection and a Roku Soundbridge – is WXPN, 88.5 FM in Philadelphia. After previously asking listeners to help compile lists of history’s 885 greatest songs and albums, the good folks at XPN are embarking on an even more ambitious project: the 885 greatest artists. Details are here.

In making my list of top ten artists and ten more honorable mention picks, I imposed only one guideline, the Sufficiently Obsessive Rule, which requires that I own at least (a) four CDs’ worth of an artist’s work, or (b) 50% of his/her/its recorded output. Then I violated that rule a time or two (I had my reasons). The result is a list of twenty artists who I care about and listen to, not a list of the best or most influential acts of the rock era. Dozens of artists received some level of consideration, and if you see some ridiculous, glaring omission, you can safely assume that he/she/they came in at number 21 on my list. That is unless you’re thinking of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in which case I can assure you that they got no consideration at all. Anyway, here’s my list:

1. The Rolling Stones. I was born in 1968, right as the Stones entered the four-year peak that produced Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. The songs on those records (and the ones that came before) are as elemental to me as sunshine or oxygen, and equally essential to life. For me, there is no Before Stones period; they always were. I remember hearing “Brown Sugar” on the radio at age four or five and knowing this is for me. At the same time, I’m old enough to remember them at the top of their form, when Some Girls came out and “Miss You” was all over the radio and Mick was leering into the camera on Saturday Night Live. They were larger than life to me in a way that no band has ever been since, or could ever hope to be again. But the mystique wouldn’t mean jack if the music didn’t continue to hit me right to the body. And that’s why in the age-old debate, I’ll always be more of a Stones guy than a Beatles guy. I love the Beatles, but it’s more of an intellectual love, their music appealing to my head. For the Stones, it’s a lusty love, their hard distillation of the blues going straight to my heart and my hips. And that, to me, is rock and roll.

2. Bob Dylan. The misguided managers of history often label Dylan a “poet,” as if it’s pejorative to call him what he really is, a songwriter. The words don’t just exist on a page, and they’re not meant to be spoken; they’re elevated by music and enhanced by Dylan’s brilliant signing. The way he uses his rusty voice to probe and tug and tear at words is rarely matched in rock and roll. He sneers (“Positively 4th Street”) and rages (“Masters of War”) and comforts (“Lay Lady Lay”) and regrets (“You’re A Big Girl Now”) in a way that makes liars of the know-nothings who claim he can’t sing. Combine his epic history with the fact that he remains the epitome of mysterious, unassailable cool, and that he continues to make tremendous records well into his sixties, and it’s easy to see why Bob Dylan is my ultimate individual rock and roll icon.

3. Bruce Springsteen. I understand all the criticisms – the self-mythologizing, the cornball humor, the over-reliance on stock phrases and metaphors (really, Bruce, how many times can one man “shut out the lights” over the course of a single album?) – but in the end, none of that matters because of the dizzying quality of the work. For the first fifteen years of his career, Springsteen made a handful of great records and never less than a very good one, and he covered more ground than he’s credited for, from the hard-swinging raucousness of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, to the every-hair-in-its-place perfection of Born to Run, the desolate beauty of Nebraska, and the intimate confessions of Tunnel of Love. And he has never failed to respect his audience, proving it all night, night after night, in every corner of the globe.

4. The Replacements. No band has mattered as much to me as these guys did during my collegiate years. It was the first time that my favorite band seemed more like peers than heroes. They described a world I could understand, full of loners, lovers, buddies, break-ups, alienation, alcoholic binges, good times, girls who got away, romance, regret, heartbreak, and ultimately, an unrelenting hope. And they rocked. Except when they didn’t, and then, they produced some of the prettiest songs that any group of neighborhood miscreants could hope to make. I miss them in a way that’s almost impossible to explain.

5. Elvis Costello. Me at my Costelloholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Michael and I love Goodbye Cruel World.”

6. The Hold Steady. Are they really the sixth greatest act of all-time? Probably not, but they will be once Boys and Girls in America hits the streets on October 3.

7. The Clash. They would be on my list had they released only London Calling, the most indispensable of my desert island discs. But they also gave us the disciplined fury of The Clash and the unabashedly ambitious Sandinista!, not to mention the radio-ready Combat Rock, and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, which competently kept time between the era-defining first and third albums. I love the idea of this band – fusing the music, culture and politics of the first and third worlds with a rare precision and ferocity – more than any other band I know.

8. Bob Marley. I was twelve years old when Marley died, so I only came to him later, like much of the world did, through Legend, an album that instantly changed my way of thinking. To the extent that I thought of reggae at all, I found it tedious, limited by the sameness of the rhythms. Marley destroyed the barriers I had built for myself. These were great songs that could have been rendered brilliantly in any style. On the version of “No Woman, No Cry” that’s on Legend, and on the entire Live! album from which the song was originally culled, Marley communicates with an audience in a way that I’ve never heard surpassed and rarely equaled. His original catalog remains the most spiritually satisfying music I know.

9. The Beatles. I psych myself out when contemplating the Beatles. Their cultural ubiquity and near-universal adoration can make it hard to tell where their broader impact ends and my own thinking begins. At one point in my life, they would have been the clear number one. But after living with their records for so long, I put them on the shelf and moved on to other things. Still, every once in a while, I pull out Rubber Soul or the White Album and am somehow surprised by how much I love them, how adventurous they still seem, and how my appreciation for all contemporary music is somehow filtered through them.

10. Prince. The human jukebox. For a span of about ten years, he could do no wrong, and the weirder he got – the bass-less funk of “When Doves Cry,” the spare falsetto bounce of “Kiss,” the faux-psychedelia of “Raspberry Beret” – the better he sounded. As a songwriter, producer, one-man band and epic guitar player he has few (if any) peers.

Honorable mention:

James Brown. His most famous statement is still probably 1962’s Live at the Apollo, with its staccato rhythms, horn bleats and otherworldly showmanship, but for me, the best, most irresistible work came later, after “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” when he started to churn out the leanest, toughest, funkiest music I’ve ever heard, the period bookended by “Cold Sweat” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” I understand why some people don’t like some of the music that I love, but I don’t understand how anyone could not like that. Bootsy! Catfish! Bobby Byrd! May-cee-o!

Miles Davis. How could one man produce the stately, traditional elegance of Relaxin’, the revolutionary grace of Kind of Blue, the celestial beauty of In A Silent Way, the churning abstract power of Bitches Brew, and the violent outer-space funk of On the Corner? Miles Davis is more responsible for expanding my thinking about what constitutes beauty in music than any other five artists combined.

The Ramones. Thanks to a forward-thinking local cable system and some lax parenting, I, at age eleven, was able to watch Rock and Roll High School about 20 times during a six-week span in 1979. I remember thinking to myself “these guys are gonna be huge,” which, of course, they were and they weren’t. But they were always great, a fact obvious to a pre-pubescent kid in central Illinois, but elusive to a world that used its disposable income to help the guys in Styx buy Rolls Royces while the bruddahs settled for the subway.

Talking Heads. Intellectual nerds absorb Al Green and Afrobeat and recruit the guy who played organ on The Modern Lovers? Holy crap, are you kidding me? If this band didn’t already exist, I’d invent them in my dreams and I’d be wearing the Big Suit.

Lucinda Williams. The best, most literate and evocative songwriter working today, grounded so deeply in the traditional music of the American South that it oozes from her pores as naturally as sweat on a sultry Mississippi night. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is my favorite album of the past decade, and the guitar-as-life metaphor on “Drunken Angel” is one of the great lyrical achievements in all of rock and roll. By comparison, the love-as-drug metaphor on the title track to her Essence album is pretty mundane, but the aching, arching chorus is as irresistible as any in recent memory.

Marshall Crenshaw. His first album has been a touchstone for me for more than two decades, one of the most enduringly likeable records I’ve ever known. A pure pop classicist, Crenshaw writes, plays and sings for the mass audience he always deserved but never got. In retrospect, his debut may have almost been too perfect, leaving the impression that it’s all the Marshall Crenshaw you need to know. And if that means you’ve never heard “Starless Summer Sky” or “Television Light,” well, how sad for you.

Marvin Gaye. For me, Marvin Gaye is the most sophisticated and mature artist to emerge from the classic soul era. His closest rivals would be Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Stevie Wonder (all of whom I love), but I don’t think any of them could quite pull off the subtle grace of What’s Going On, the sexual heat of Let’s Get it On, or the shattering personal narrative of Here, My Dear. And, of course, before he made any of those records, he gave us "I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and a dozen other tunes that would justify his place in history all by themselves.

Fela Kuti. Fela is here partly as a representative for the growing number of African musicians who have become important to me in recent years, and partly because his own music is altogether mind-blowing. Fusing James Brown’s hard funk and Miles Davis’s electric expansiveness with a decidedly revolutionary Nigerian point of view, his (typically) lengthy works percolate and bubble over without ever meandering. The result is tough, sinewy, insistent music that eventually worked its way into the American culture on its own and through descendents like Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.

Chuck Berry. According to a recent article in Slate, when rock critic Eric Weisbard was asked to describe his former colleague Robert Christgau's musical aesthetics, he replied, “Chuck Berry.” That pretty much sums it up for me, too. A straight line runs through the music I love best, and it ends at the beginning, which is Chuck. Not only did Chuck Berry codify rock and roll’s sound and its format (before Chuck, RnR’s primary instrument was the piano; after and forever, it has been the guitar), he also set the stage for a sort of lyricism that was miles away from teenagers in love. The frenetic wordplay of “Too Much Monkey Business” is an obvious antecedent to Bob Dylan’s 1960’s work, and the “hurry home drops” on Marie’s cheek in “Memphis” manage to pack a full song’s worth of pathos into three small words. The original.

The Pretenders. Sure, it gets pretty erratic after Learning to Crawl, but the original configuration of this band was so perfect, the songs so tough and sassy, the image rendered with such clarity, that I couldn’t leave them off the list. The Pretenders spoke to me, and they reconciled two radically opposed ideas, combining punk spirit with professional chops to create a radio-ready presence that made concessions to no one. They sounded great on their own terms, exploring dangerous territory (oh, the words that came out of her mouth!) that got over on the strength of a muscular, supple rhythm section, James Honeyman-Scott’s strikingly tough and pretty guitar style, and Chrissie’s sultry, pouty persona. Damn right she’s special.