Rhapsody Streamnotes: November 30, 2013

I deliberately stretched this column out until the end of the month, then had to cheat a bit to keep it inside November. Main reason was I didn't want to scoop anyone on the Black Friday Special -- not that I could help having weighed in on four of the seventeen records there (Adam Lane Trio: A-, Revolutionary Ensemble: A-, Boz Scaggs: [**], White Mandingos: A-), but you get six more here, and half of those I wasn't aware of until I started compiling the column: only one I significantly disagree with is Blind Boys of Alabama. I also checked up on seven Turkey Shoot targets (having previously reviewed Body/Head [B-], Dirty Beaches [*], Forest Swords [*], Haxan Cloak [*], Iceage [B], Sigur Rós [B], and Tyler the Creator [B]). That doesn't quite cover them all, and some I'm not as annoyed with as the other critics are, but I'm pretty sure nothing in the Turkey Shoot is worth bothering with, and everything (except Blind Boys of Alabama -- sorry about that) in the Black Friday Special is likely to be interesting.

Aside from the advance intelligence those projects brought me, I've been sniffing around quite a bit lately. Some of what follows are 2012 releases that I looked for back then and only found now -- I stumbled across a list I made a year ago and felt like I ought to follow up on it. There is a little bit of pretty much everything that interests me, and more of it is good than bad. I spent very little time searching for turkeys this month -- much more interesting to check out records with some reputation, especially from quarters which monitor promising niches. Just to pick one example, I tracked down two of the more obscure records on Jason Gross' list that put Boards to Canada to shame, and gave one an A-, the other B+(***).

One thing that moved this along was that once I settled on a grade, I didn't sweat the writing. The best album this month is the one by MIA, which I played about eight times but I never put any effort into writing about it. If you want to know about Omar Souleyman or Tal National or Tamikrest (or Arcade Fire), check out Michael Tatum's reviews. I concurred quickly enough, then let them go. (I'm less impressed with Sleigh Bells, even after giving it an extra play.) And working as fast as I was, there was even less reason to try to detail a Kim Richey or a Billy Currington.

One result is that I hit 100 records this month. (It was 97 before I indexed them, so I added Dismemberment Plan and when I went looking for Gretchen Parlato I found Gretchen Wilson instead -- no improvement, I'm sure, but an easier mark for so late in the cycle.) This also pushes the overall Rhapsody index over the 4,000 record mark (since 2007, including records that went into Recycled Goods -- lately most of them).

Main thing this month has done has been to give me a jump on the annual year-end list extravaganza. My main tool here has been the metacritic file, which currently lists 5537 notable records this year (its poorer cousin, which collects reissues, compilations, and archival material, adds 706 titles). The sheer size of these files makes my 100 records seem paltry. But it offers about as thorough view of the landscape as one person can ascertain. We'll see how well that works. But one cautionary note is that six of the seventeen Black Friday Special records were missing from the metacritic file before they were nominated -- more than one-third.

One more housekeeping note: I've been showing album covers for all the A- (and above) records, and I routinely cache them. It occurred to me that I have several B+(***) records already cached (e.g., for Tatum's column) so why not show them too? Then I added links for a few more covers I found at CDConnection (a trick I started using for last year's Turkey Shoot and continued for Tatum's "trash" records). That left holes for the more obscure B+(***) records, so I tried boxing the titles rather than just (inexplicably) leaving them out. Put the A-list above the HMs. Still more words than pictures.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on October 30. Past reviews and more information are available here (4043 records).

Carla Bley:
Bend but Don't Break
Ryan Maffei:
Country Town
William Parker:
Live at Yoshi's
William Parker:
Live in Houston
Pink Martini:
Get Happy
Secret Circuit:
Tactile Galactics

Jhené Aiko: Sail Out (2013, Def Jam, EP): Los Angeles singer-songwriter's debut -- seven tracks, 30:22, close to the EP/LP borderline. She has a lax beats and a languid soulfulness, makes for a nice contrast with guest rappers (Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Vince Staples). First half is much sharper, so it's probably a good thing she quit when she did. B+(**)

Gary Allan: Set You Free (2013, MCA Nashville): Nashville slugger, earlier albums styled him as Alright Guy and Living Hard, ninth album since 1996 offers little new but it flows better than usual, never falls off the rails or off the wagon, which makes him alright in my book. B+(*)

Alsarah Débruit: Aljawal (2013, Soundway): Single-name singer and producer, respectively. Alsarah with her soaring high voice was born in Sudan, spent time in Yemen, wound up in Brooklyn. Débruit is French, has some experience remixing artists from Turkey to Africa, and sometimes gets the upper hand here. B

Arcade Fire: Reflektor (2013, Merge, 2CD): Having admired but almost never played their previous albums, my opinion on this one can't count for much. I'll leave it to other critics to suss out what it means and how it fits into a oeuvre that began with a funeral, but I mostly respond to texture and sound anyway. I can say that the first disc is close to sublime, the second somewhat less so. And it probably helps that neither is very long, and that you can choose which to play when. A- [cd]

Mulatu Astatke: Skeches of Ethiopia (2013, Jazz Village): Ethiopian composer and keyboardist, studied in London and Boston, and worked for a spell in New York with Duke Ellington. He developed his Ethio-Jazz synthesis in the 1970s, and has a handful of albums, but this is the first time he's been able to employ a big band under his own direction. A-

Balqees: Majnoun (2013, Rotana): Yemeni pop singer Balqees Fathi in a set of glitzy, chintzy productions that suggest Bollywood but the music is so much stranger -- the rhythm stops and starts as often as in Afro-Cuban and the synth strings glide around notes we don't recognize as such. Still, it has the air of shameless pop, just from another world. B+(***)

Willis Earl Beal: Nobody Knows (2013, Hot Charity/XL): Singer-songwriter born in Chicago, joined the army and got discharged, moved to Albuquerque, lived on the streets, wrote poetry and picked up some rudimentary music skills. Second album, brings a lot of gravity to his hapless songs. B

Tim Berne's Snakeoil: Shadow Man (2013, ECM): Second album for this quartet -- the leader, playing only alto sax here, has dozens of albums since 1979 -- with Oscar Noriega (clarinet, bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano), and Ches Smith (drums, vibes). Album starts off on a measured note, but opens up with several long and incendiary pieces -- at least no one will wonder if Berne is toning it down to fit in at his notoriously laid back label. B+(***) [dl]

Best Coast: Fade Away (2013, Mexican Summer, EP): Seven-cut, 27:01 EP following two albums that appeal to alt fans who like pop hooks, manages to concentrate them so deftly that I would probably be won too over if I weren't so given to discounting EPs. B+(***)

Eric Bibb: Jericho Road (2013, Stony Plain): A blues singer with folk and jazz roots -- father was folksinger Leon Bibb and uncle was jazz pianist John Lewis, has more than two dozen albums since 1977, often understated with acoustic guitar and plain decency, but the bonus track ("Now") is one to avoid. B+(*)

Billy Joe + Norah: Foreverly (2013, Reprise): Green Day guitarist-singer Billy Joe Armstrong and genial superstar Norah Jones remake the Everly Brothers' 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, backed by bass and drums. Their voices don't mesh all that well, and the songs have lost significance, much as "Daddy" has lost that terrifying authority. B

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Trios (2013, ECM): Piano-sax-bass, Sheppard playing tenor and soprano, his leads crisp and tantallizing, on what I gather are all Bley compositions. Lack of drums gives it a chamber effect, for better and worse, not that it wouldn't be perfectly suitable, to cite an early Bley title, for dinner music. B+(***) [dl]

Blind Boys of Alabama: I'll Find a Way (2013, Masterworks): Another long, strange trip, as a blind children's gospel group founded in Talladega in 1944 grew up and became a Grammy-winning institution, lately struggling with the sameness of their songbook by inviting guests to spruce it up -- producer Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards), Sam Amidon, Patty Griffin. I still can't help but think the old-time stuff is the best, nor do I have much use even for it. B

Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest (2013, Warp): Two Scottish brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, offer 17 pieces, dubbed ambient techno because it doesn't do much, though some of it is pleasant enough. ("New Seeds" is better than that.) B

VV Brown: Samson & Delilah (2013, YOY): British soul singer, her retro debut was one of my favorite albums of 2010, but things haven't gone well since then. A second album was quashed by the label, and this successor veers far away from the first -- still has some dance beats, but they're more '90s than '60s. Some are even impressive (e.g., "The Apple"). B+(*)

Luke Bryan: Crash My Party (2013, Capitol Nashville): His nonstop drinking party with all those girls he imagines crashing (or crushing) could be a setup for humor (if he had such a sense), but he's wound up so tight he makes it all sound pathetic, and not like, say, Conway Twitty (to pick a name he dropped) -- indeed, the artist this most reminded me of was Meatloaf. He's such a caricature any hack in Nashville can feed him songs -- he only wheedled two co-credits here, probably slipping in lines about listening to country radio stations. C

Jake Bugg: Jake Bugg (2012 [2013], Mercury): Young Brit singer-songwriter, plays guitar and blows harmonica so some people discern a whiff of early Dylan (without memorable words) or I might add early Elliott Murphy (without pop hooks, either), which all pleasantries aside doesn't leave much. B

The Cannanes: Howling at All Hours (2013, Chapter Music): Australian group, fourteenth album since 1985. The only Cannane in the group is guitarist Michelle, but the singers are Annabel Bleach and Stephen O'Neil. Tuneful alt-rock, more guitar focus than, say, the Go-Betweens, similar dynamic, but less to say. B+(**)

The Cannanes: Small Batch (2013, Exro FM, EP): Six cuts, 17:54, less guitar, more pop, always a good deal in my book. B+(**)

The Carper Family: Old-Fashioned Gal (2013, South Central Music): Austin string trio -- bassist Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman on violin and Jenn Miori on guitar -- harmonizes on old-fashioned tunes, a category that doesn't exclude Neil Young's "Comes a Time." B+(**)

The Chills: Somewhere Beautiful (2011-12 [2013], Fire): New Zealand indie pop group, principally Martin Phillips, released two fabulous albums 1990-92 but little since then, recorded this live at a New Years Eve party. So this is effectively a "greatest hits (plus a few rarities) live" -- i.e., would have been redundant product twenty years ago, but a belated memoir now. B+(**)

Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe (2013, Glass Note): Glasgow electropop group, after a well-received EP their debut comes on big and heavy-handed. B

The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars (2013, Sensibility/Columbia): Joy Williams and John Paul White, both singers and songwriters, White plays the acoustic guitar that underlines their folk/Americana genre claim, but producer Charlie Peacock doesn't leave it at that. Second album, not counting a co-credit for a T-Bone Burnett soundtrack. I can't get enough out of the songs to care, but sometimes her voice seems to carry the song, and sometimes it ovedramatizes it. B-

Elvis Costello and the Roots: Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (2013, Blue Note): The great hope here is the band, especially given that Ahmir Thompson shares all but one of the writing credits. Probably good enough for his best in 20 years, maybe since Blood and Chocolate. Easily the Roots' worst in that same time slice. B+(*)

Court Yard Hounds: Amelita (2013, Columbia): Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, who formerly flanked Natalie Maines in the Dixie Chicks, with their second album. Indeed, this sounds like a Dixie Chicks album without a lead singer, which is to say more harmony than personality. Title song is rather tedious. B

Stephan Crump/Mary Halvorson: Secret Keeper: Super 8 (2011 [2013], Intakt): Bass-guitar interaction, something Crump has had remarkable success at (although more often in his Rosetta Trio than as a duo); of course, Halvorson is less likely to follow his lead, and more likely to do something unexpected on her own. B+(**)

Billy Currington: We Are Tonight (2013, Mercury Nashville): Nashville singer, fifth album since 2002, chalk him up as a good natured pro. B+(*)

Deap Vally: Sistrionix (2013, Island): Two LA girls, Lindsey Troy (guitar) and Julie Edwards (drums), the songs mostly built on bass riffs (presumably played on the guitar, although the studio album could be beefed up beyond the concert pics, which only show the duo), the vocals adding several joke effects to a pretty amusing Robert Plant impression. Would be better without the last two cuts, where they stretch out. B+(*)

Death Grips: No Love Deep Web (2012 [2013], Third Worlds/Harvest): Metal-edged rap group, cut this as a follow up to last year's above-ground debut, The Money Store, then when Epic balked at releasing it they dumped it out as a free mixtape, like their real debut (Exmilitary). Their sound has instant appeal but quickly turns grating. Took a little longer this time, but the relentless battering adds up all the same. B

Della Mae: This World Oft Can Be (2013, Rounder): All-female bluegrass band from Boston, mostly original material despite the quaintness of the title. B

The Devil Makes Three: I'm a Stranger Here (2013, New West): Two guitarists and a bassist, sixth album since 2002, lean a little more folk than country but got some twang and an easy touch. B+(*)

The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (2013, Partisan): DC punk/hardcore band, at least during its initial run 1995-2003 when they were scarcely noticed, but when their albums were reissued last year they were greated as classics of a former era, so why not regroup? (It's not like Travis Morrison's solo career had gone anywhere.) However, this reunion has been panned as widely as the reissues were praised: seems they've returned as a catchy alt-pop outfit with nary a punk or hardcore bone -- unless you count the one where the audience is urged to shout "fuck" when the band sings "cluster"? Maybe in another generation this will be remembered as a classic, too. B+(**)

Don't Talk to the Cops!: Let's Quit (2012, Greedhead): Seattle group, some sketch comedy (not necessarily meant to be funny), some rap, some post-new wave something or other, with occasional pop hooks, not that they'd cop to them. B+(**)

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013, Aftermath): Plenty of reasons to pass this one by -- you may even wish he'd experience one of those cardiac arrests he wishes on others for a better world. Hoping to regain the vigor of his youth, he's dialed it back to crazy, but you know the one about "history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce"? Well, it's funnier in art than in real life. And his use of sound samples remains peerless, probably because he's not afraid of using something as square and white as "The Game of Love." Nor does he stop at sampling, as he rewrites Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good" -- still good, just not that easy. A- [cd]

Ethernet: Opus 2 (2013, Kranky): Ambient electronics, with a patina of fake static to reinforce the idea of a radio searching the lonely cosmos. B+(*)

Fear of Men: Early Fragments (2011-13 [2013], Kanine, EP): British group led by Jessica Weiss, dubbed "dream pop" but could just as well be punk with soft edges and more tune sense. This rolls up three singles and bits from two EPs, totalling eight cuts, 25:03. Nice start. B+(**)

Sky Ferreira: Night Time, My Time (2013, Capitol): First album after some EPs and a 21st birthday, the lead tease "Boys" is covered in shoegaze, but midway through the glaze starts to clear, simplifying the formula and making her more appealing; still stays on the rock side of pop as the haze returns. B+(**)

Fist City: It's 1983, Grow Up! (2012 [2013], Black Tent Press): Four-piece punk band from southern Alberta, two singers (Brittany Griffiths, Kier Griffiths), second album, only runs 26:58 but I'm not inclined to tag an album with 12 songs as an EP. B+(**)

The Foreign Exchange: Love in Flying Colors (2013, Foreign Exchange Music): A long distance duo, with Dutch producer Nicolay mailing his beats in and North Carolina soulman Phonte Coleman laying in the vocals, or perhaps layerng them on is more accurate here. B+(*)

Josephine Foster: I'm a Dreamer (2013, Fire): Folk singer-songwriter, originally from Colorado, based in Chicago, records for a UK label. B+(*)

Ezra Furman: Day of the Dog (2013, Bar/None): Cut three albums plus a compilation of "bootlegs and road recordings" with a band he called the Harpoons, then appeared bloodied on his solo debut -- I guess it's a tough life for former Tufts U. students. This one starts with "I Wanna Destroy Myself" and, flailing that, "Tell 'Em All to Go to Hell" and "My Zero," then the title tune. Helps that they all rock (as in "rock and roll") out -- no point in us having to share his misery. A-

Future of the Left: How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident (2013, Prescriptions): British band, where there's a tradition of lefty jingoism in bands like Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, which this group sounds more like each time out -- this is rougher and scruffier than previous albums, angrier too, though not smart enough to evoke references to Mekons or Gang of Four. B+(**)

Kevin Gates: The Luca Brasi Story (2013, Atlantic): Rapper from Baton Rouge, has a stack of mixtapes since 2007 that after this one dropped (on Bread Winners Association) landed him a contract with Atlantic. Rhapsody attributes both this and his newer album to Atlantic, but I'm not seeing product there: it's just that the Rhapsody version is only 9 cuts long (vs. 22 on the mixtape). I suspect that given the gangsta theme brevity is a plus: this hangs tough until it cuts loose midway with "Idgraf." B+(**)

Kevin Gates: Stranger Than Fiction (2013, Bread Winners Association): Guess this is still a mixtape, regardless of Gates' label affiliation -- may mean it's not ready for prime time, and I can't really argue otherwise. Does hit hard, though. B+(**)

Glasser: Interiors (2013, True Panther Sounds): Cameron Mesirow, singer-songwriter working with synths, parents were both in bands, her mother a founder of Human Sexual Response. Alternately intriguing and ordinary, almost as an aesthetic statement. B+(*)

Ariana Grande: Yours Truly (2013, Island/Republic): The pictures show a cute girl who scarcely looks her 20 years, but she's been working hard for the last five and thoroughly owns her debut album, overcoming the mass of writers and producers -- most notably Babyface Edmonds -- and featured guests (including Big Sean, Mac Miller, and, hey, Mika) in her big deal production. Danceable, sure, but looking beyond the teen market, and thankfully she doesn't feel the need to show she learned to sign in church, nor to play up that she started on Broadway. B+(***)

Greenhouse [Blueprint/Illogic]: Bend but Don't Break (2013, Weightless): Two underground rappers from Ohio, Blueprint had a superb album in 2005 (1988), Illogic has five albums since 2000, and they have one previous joint as Greenhouse. Resilient beats, steady rhymes, smart and conscious. [NB: Rhapsody only has 7/11 cuts, 25:44] B+(***)

Sunna Gunnlaugs: Distilled (2013, Sunny Sky): Pianist from Iceland, with Þorgrímur Jónsson (bass) and Scott McLemore (drums). Nice, even-handed piano trio. B+(*)

Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (2011 [2012], Firehouse 12): Guitarist, sometimes brilliant, flanked by Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jon Irabagon (alto sax) -- two horns that can burn down the house although they hold back here, doing little more than reiterating tricky lines laid down on the guitar. B+(**)

Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea (2012 [2013], Firehouse 12): Adds two lower-pitched horns to last year's Quintet -- Jacob Garchik's trombone and Ingrid Laubrock's tenor sax -- with the net effect that she's writing more leads for the horns rather than just letting them tag along after his guitar. And when her guitar does break loose she can really shine -- so why rein it all in just to spotlight your clever postbop composition? And to think, this started off looking like the year Jon Irabagon could do no wrong. Even John Hébert has his nose stuck so deep in the charts he can't save the day. B+(**)

Wayne Hancock: Ride (2013, Bloodshot): Sounds more like Hank Williams than Hank III, and on "Long Road Home" wrote a song that would do Hank proud. More mundanely, three songs feature "blues" in the title, and that doesn't count "Deal Gone Down" -- or proof he really is a modern guy: "Cappuccino Boogie." A-

Tim Hecker: Virgins (2011-12 [2013], Kranky): From Vancouver, classified as ambient but strikes me as more oriented to sound abstractions, often starting with acoustic instruments and feeding them into various distortion electronics -- e.g., starts with a pipe organ here, which is nobody's notion of ambient. No beats, nothing danceable, perhaps in the Electronica world "ambient" just means sit down and shut up. B

Jaipur Kawa Brass Band: Dance of the Cobra (2013, Riverboat): Brass band plus percussion from India, some nods toward the local classical music but the instrumentation a "gift" courtesy of British imperialism. Was wondering how close this might match up with the Gypsy brass bands of Eastern Europe, and the answer is not much, but it's even further removed from British march band music -- one does have some choice over which "gifts" to keep. B+(*)

Ka: The Night's Gambit (2013, Iron Works): Kaseem Ryan, from Brooklyn, "been rhyming for over 20 years" but has a thin portfolio, a purist, I suppose; beats are rudimentary, voice low and talky, so he has to make those rhymes count. B+(**)

Toby Keith: Drinks After Work (2013, Show Dog Nashville): Twentieth album (counting three Xmas specials), got a voice and a guitar and half-a-brain, and makes up for the latter by hiring Bobby Pinson to co-write most of his songs -- I figure he gets credit for fixing up the couplet that goes, "could we ever get back together/or is never still a good time to call." Deluxe edition adds "Call a Marine" -- evidently, they're as effective busting up southern bars as they are at blowing up shit in Afghanistan. B

King DJ: Let Me See You Feel (2013, Bear Funk): Kristof Hilde Hugo Michiels, from Belgium, first album after a pair of EPs, offers big dance beats, a house throwback I think -- at one point I expected Fatboy Slim to jump in and sling some shit -- and when you think he might run out of steam, he doubles back and pumps up the volume. A-

Kwes.: Ilp. (2013, Warp): Artist prefers lower case and insists on those periods, annoying traits of a piece with the fussy arbitrariness of his music -- seems to be a Tricky in training, having yet to find his true Schadenfreude but willing to go through the motions anyway. B-

Lady Gaga: Artpop (2013, Interscope/Streamline): I've always found her resistible before, but she's jacked her dance-pop sound up so huge it's overwhelming. Now I wonder what insidious messages she's trying to sneak into the lyrics, but can't come up with much worse than "fashion" and something about "swine." A-

Latyrx: The Second Album (2013, Latyramid): The first album came out in 1997, so this has been a long time coming -- not that Lateef (the Truth Speaker) and (especially) Lyrics Born haven't been active in the meantime. A-

Le1f: Tree House (2013, Greedhead): Khalif Diouf, tied into Das Racist, second album, dark and dinky, then jingly. B+(*) [sc]

Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip: Repent Replenish Repeat (2013, Sunday Best): Third album for the English hip-hop duo (they each have a couple solo projects), Dan does the grime beats, Pip the words which skitter across the tracks, too many too fast for me to follow but now and then I grab something that makes me think they're on the right track. "You Will See Me" is the exception, built up grand rather than flattened out. B+(***)

Ryan Maffei: Country Town (2013, Jamrag, EP): Seven cuts, 23:32. Maffei is someone I sorta know first through the commentary on Christgau's late MSN blog -- a fan, a critic, a grad student who will probably wind up in academia but is having fun here, smart enough that even his bad ideas have panache, except for the echoey, uneven sound, which he probably thinks is part of the fun. B+(***) [dl]

¡Mayday!: Believers (2013, Strange Music): Hip hop group from Miami, rappers go by Bernbiz and Wrekonize, but group also includes a band -- like the Roots but less funky, the band stabilizes the sound and evens out the flow, sometimes making them seem more subtle than the wordsmiths intend. B+(***)

MIA: Matangi (2013, Interscope): "You keep on telling me you want to have it all/Tell me what for?" A [cd]

Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven (2013, Warp): Daniel Lopatin, ninth album under this moniker, offers electronics with a little choral camouflage, the beats intriguing at first but the slow stuff doesn't capitalize on that. B+(**)

Klaus Paier/Asja Valcic: Silk Road (2013, ACT): Duets, accordion player from Austria, also plays bandoneon when he wants to shift the model from polka to tango, and cellist from Croatia, who must have logged a lot of classical music before she reoriented toward jazz. B+(*)

Parkay Quarts: Tally All the Things That You Broke (2013, What's Your Rupture?, EP): I'm still prejudiced against these EP things, especially given that the analog group Parquet Courts has proven their mettle over LP length, but this is pretty satisfying for only five cuts, 19:38, with the short ones going punk, and the 7:38 closer stretching out a riff that could go even longer. B+(***)

William Parker Quartet: Live at Yoshi's 2006 (2006 [2013], AUM Fidelity): First two of eight CDs in the box set Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006-2012, all built around the superb quartet bassist Parker assembled for his 2000 album O'Neal's Porch: Lewis Barnes (trumpet), Rob Brown (alto sax), and Hamid Drake (drums), the bassist also credited with "double reeds." First disc starts off with the weepy 25:12 opener, "Tears for the Children of Rwanda." After a long intro, the horns come out to play, and they banish any thoughts of wood flutes, even on "Wood Flute Song." B+(***)

William Parker Quartet: Live in Houston 2007 (2006-07 [2013], AUM Fidelity, 2CD): The bassist's credit includes "double reeds" and shakuhachi" -- probably the secret ingredient to the exotic vamp of "Red Desert; more song titles although they merge together like inspired long improv, and the flow benefits from two songs with "Groove" in the title; only problem, if that's the word, is when the flow breaks down for a spot of virtuoso bass (or some of that wood flute); includes two tracks evidently left over from Yoshi's. B+(***)

William Parker/Raining on the Moon: Friday Afternoon (2012 [2013], AUM Fidelity): Group named for one of Parker's finest albums (2002), with pianist Eri Yamamoto supplementing the Lewis Barnes-Rob Brown two-horn quartet, and Leena Conquest's working her way through the difficult terrain to sing; she's remarkable in ways that remind one of Betty Carter although she makes it look easier; and by the way, it's time we point out again what a fantastic drummer Hamid Drake is. A-

William Parker/In Order to Survive: Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon (2012 [2013], AUM Fidelity): CD 8 of the box set, minus two outtakes from Corn Meal Moon considered a bonus with the box set. In Order to Survive was a Parker group from the mid-1990s: the Quartet (Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Rob Brown on alto sax, Hamid Drake on drums) plus Cooper-Moore on piano. Live set from the 2012 Vision Festival. If Rob Brown did all that high shit on alto I'm doubly impressed, although that might reinforce the notion that soprano players just don't have the dexterity. And the pianist is just amazing: sets like this make you nominate Cooper-Moore for the most underrated pianist of the last few decades. A-

Pink Martini: Get Happy (2013, Heinz): Portland, Oregon's multilingual lounge band jumps all over the map, opening with "Ich Dich Liebe," followed by "Quizás, Quizás, Quizá," and pretty soon they're into "Je Ne T'aime Plus" and "Pâná Când Nu Te Iubeam" and "Üsküdar'a Gider Iken" and "Zundoko-Bushi" before they segué into Irving Berlin from Anna McGarrigle and close with "Get Happy/Happy Days/Smile" with a brief Scott Joplin interlude. If that sounds like your kind of album, it probably is. Me, I'm always happy to hear China Forbes sing anything, but I'm less sure about the blokes who slip in here and there, like Rufus Wainwright. B+(***)

Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit (2013, Blue Note): Jazz musicians are the world's virtuosos on every instrument, but jazz vocalists, especially male, are far from world class, trying to make up for various shortcomings with idiosyncratic affects. Beats me why so many critics think Porter has moved to the fore of their pack, but I could say the same about any of the anointed ones, from Jon Hendricks to Kurt Elling to Jamie Cullum. And now that Porter's writing more of his own songs he has fewer good ones, although his choice of covers may be help obscure that fact. B-

The Pozniaks: Pozniak Street (2013, Jamrag): First album, short (26:37, in 10 fast ones), Tim Brauer (guitars) and Ryan Maffei (keyboards), both sing and someone drums. Classic pop hooks flung about casually, recklessly even, lest someone suspect a cliché or a whiff of professionalism. Reminds me of a circa 1990 band, the Pooh Sticks, not least Joe Levy's excessive enthusiasm for them -- not warranted then, but applicable here. A- [dl]

Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (2013, Def Jam): Former Clipse MC delivers another paean to the good life of American capitalism, which means dealing drugs not just because he enjoys being knee-deep in the money but because "I gotta be me." A-

Rapsody: She Got Game (2013, Jamla): Marianna Evans, from North Carolina, has an album and several mixtapes, most produced by 9th Wonder, who doesn't go for anything too fancy; don't doubt that she's got her game, but few of the numerous male guests hold their own. B+(*)

Kim Richey: Thorn in My Heart (2013, Yep Roc): Country-ish singer-songwriter, low-keyed and observant. B+(**)

Rihanna: Unapologetic (2012, Def Jam): Missed it last year, and now that it's available it's too late to matter much, but this is as consistently hook-filled as ever -- which is to say not quite enough. B+(***)

Venissa Santi: Big Stuff: Afro Cuban Holiday (2013, Sunnyside): Jazz singer, raised in Ithaca, NY; grandfather a composer in Cuba, explaining her interest in Cuban musical forms. Holiday is Billie, whose songbook is recast in Afro-Cuban forms -- e.g., "Strange Fruit" is a bolero, "I Cover the Water Front" a guaguanco. B+(*)

São Paulo Underground: Beija Flors Velho E Sujo (2012 [2013], Cuneiform): Fourth group release, a sister city analog to the various Chicago Underground outfits, the common denominator cornet player (and electronics dabbler) Rob Mazurek, adding Guilherme Granado on keyboards and Mauricio Takara on percussion, with everyone fiddling with electronics. The cornet is striking, but beyond that it's hard to find a rhythmic thread or much coherency in the sound jumble. B+(*) [dl]

Secret Circuit: Tactile Galactics (2013, Beats in Space): Eddie Ruscha Jr., son of the pop art painter; Discogs credits him with nine albums since 1996 but AMG has only noticed this one. A mix of things, some vocal, others ornate instrumentals, lush by electronica standards, sparse as pop. B+(***) [bc]

Zahava Seewald/Michaël Grébil: From My Mother's House (2013, Sub Rosa): Seewald, based in Belgium, has a handful of Jewish folk song albums, but this is more problematic with long stretches of spoken word in more languages than most of us can grok. Grébil's music is dense and brooding, and sometimes overwhelms the words. B+(*)

Shad: Flying Colours (2013, Black Box): Shadrach Kabango, born in Kenya, based in Canada, has a couple good records, and after a slow start this reminds you what's good about them -- conscious, everyday raps over run of the mill beats. B+(**)

Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants: All Hat and No Cattle (2013, Side One Dummy, EP): Foo Fighters guitarist turns out to have a country jones. I haven't heard his 2010 group album where he took the trouble to write original songs, but this quickie covers album -- ten of them, only one more than 3:04 so the total is down in EP territory at 27:41 -- is fun all the way through. B+(**)

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (2013, Lucky Number): Third album for the jangle-pop duo, relatively short with ten songs averaging less than 3 minutes. Makes a big impression with all that clang and bombast, overwhelming the skimpy vocals which try to tie the effects up into songs -- sometimes that almost works, but more often I find the result too unsettling to enjoy. B+(**)

Sons of Kemet: Burn (2013, Naim): English jazz quartet, two of them drummers which among other things means they can keep a beat going and improv on it, the other two horn players, with sax-and-clarinet player Shabaka Hutchings, born in England but raised in Barbados, leading, and tuba player Oren Marshall holding down the bottom. The upbeat stuff is uproarious, the slow stuff -- including an overly reverential "Rivers of Babylon" -- sly and subtle, but less fun. B+(***)

Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu (2013, Ribbon Music): Syrian wedding singer, "dabke artist" to those who know of such things. A- [dl]

Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana (2013, Carpark): Guitar band from Northampton, MA, led by Sadie Dupuis, seems to take Pavement as a model although they are too stuck in their garage to make for much of a comparison. B+(**)

Jyotsna Srikanth: Call of Bangalore (2013, Riverboat): Violinist from Bangalore in southern India, started in classical Carnatic music but also studied at Royal School of Music in London, where she is currently based. Her name on some records is preceded by Dr. -- she also has a medical degree in clinical pathology. One piece runs 39:38, the others 5-12 minutes. B+(*)

Swearin': Surfing Strange (2013, Wichita): Alison Crutchfield, started in Alabama with her sister Katie in P.S. Elliot, split and moved to Brooklyn and started this band with Kyle Gilbride. Second album, still lo-fi but muscled up the guitar, which is more fun for them than revealing for you. B+(**)

Tal National: Kaani (2013, Fat Cat): Band from Niger, the chunk of Saharan desert wedged between prolific Mali and barren Chad, north of hugely populated Nigeria and south of the empty interior of Libya. Most bands from Niger are Tuareg blues-rock outfits, and this one maintains some of their spartan rigor, but they've also tuned into the thumb piano percussion of Kinshasa. A-

Tamikrest: Chatma (2013, Glitterhouse): Tuareg group from northern Mali, deep in the Sahara, debuted on Festival in the Desert and now have three albums. Like many "Saharan blues" bands they have a spare, understated elegance, as straightforward as rock and roll but at a more measured pace. A-

The Thing: Boot! (2013, The Thing Records): Norwegian avant-sax trio -- Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love -- presumably named for the horror film, a nod toward pop culture that occasionally they would reiterate by running an alt-rock tune through their machinery, but the two covers this time come from Coltrane and Ellington, a bit of sophistication the saxman beats to a bloody pulp. B+(*)

Linda Thompson: Won't Be Long Now (2013, Pettifer Sounds): Ex-partner Richard Thompson has released an album virtually every year since their breakup, a work ethic unfazed no matter how torturous the love life chronicled in his songs. His better half released one tentative album in 1985, then nothing until 2002 when she made her first steps toward a comeback. Two albums later, she's made it. B+(***)

Those Darlins: Blur the Line (2013, Ow Wow Dang): Nashville band, third album, started with three girls, album cover now shows off four bare asses and eight legs, half male. Singer Jessi Zazu has lost most of her country affects, turning the group into a straight alt-rock band, maybe a little off color. B+(*)

Valerie June: Pushin' Against a Stone (2013, Sunday Best): Surname Lockett, classed by genrefiers as folk but comes close to suggesting that the promiscuous but segregated musics of her home base of Memphis -- country, soul, and rock and roll -- have finally melted and fused, though the occasional echoes of old string bands and a whiff of gospel give her a distinctive edge. B+(***)

Gretchen Wilson: Right on Time (2013, Redneck): Still young enough she gets a kick out of grandma getting high, but old enough to discover that other people being crazy isn't always so much fun. Fact is, nothing much is fun any more -- not even having the biggest truck, or the heaviest band. B-

Gretchen Wilson: Under the Covers (2013, Redneck): Covers album, usually a look back into her roots and influences, which unsurprisingly are all rock and curiously almost all date from a couple years before or after her birth in 1973. Two of the performances even resonate (Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison); the rest don't (Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Bad Company, Journey, Jackson Browne, Billy Squier). B

Within Reason: Transient Broadcasts (2013, Anodize): Gregory T. Kyryluk side project -- he also does work as Alpha Wave Movement and Open Canvas and has a 2005 album under his own name -- something I was tipped off to by Jason Gross' list of electronica outfits that make Boards of Canada seem blah. He does, although it's hard to say just why: perhaps that the beats never decay into ambient, but measure out time with proper milestones. A- [bc]

Youth Lagoon: Wondrous Bughouse (2013, Fat Possum): Second album, usually where the effects of life on the road are seen -- more time honing your chops, and less time for writing songs -- but when you're a one-man band (Trevor Powers of Boise, ID) those factors fold in on themselves. So here we get lots of warbly electronics obscuring whatever his subject is -- reportedly "themes of the metaphysical universe." B-


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Afrobeat Airways 2: Return Flight to Ghana 1974-1983 (2013, Analog Africa)
  • Bitchin Bajas: Bichitronics (2013, Drag City)
  • Livity Sound: Livity Sound (2013, self-released)
  • Thurston Moore & Loren Connors: The Only Way to Go Is Straight Through (2013, Northern Spy)
  • Myron & E: Broadway (2013, Stones Throw)
  • Mario Pavone: Arc Trio (2013, Playscape)
  • Michael Rodriguez: Reverence (2013, Criss Cross)
  • Sky Larkin: Motto (2013, Wichita)
  • Zola Jesus: Versions (2013, Sacred Bones)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Louis Armstrong: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Louis Armstrong (1949-67 [1999], MCA): Not even close, but this is representative of the first Armstrong I first fell in love with, the elder showman with a gravelly voice he could contort to sing anything, if not perfectly so uniquely no one else could touch it, and that trumpet, it could cut through any fog and pin you to your seat; nowadays I wonder if young people think it was him doing the favor for Bing Crosby on "Gone Fishin'." A

Hoyt Axton: The Balladeer: Recorded Live at the Troubadour (1962, Horizon): Folksinger from Oklahoma, mother co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" and he wrote some hits for others, including "Greenback Dollar" (Kingston Trio) here, one of many strong performances on mostly old folk songs, barked out and backed by only his own guitar. B+(*)

Joan Baez: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Joan Baez (1971-75 [1999], A&M): Skipping past a decade of folk songs on Vanguard -- reprising her only hit, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," with a live take -- this follows her move into the commercial mainstream at A&M which peaked in 1975 with Diamonds & Rust, with its stately arrangements, songs from others (Jackson Browne, John Prine, and Janis Ian made the cut), and help from Joni Mitchell. C+

Brook Benton: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Brook Benton (1959-70 [2000], Mercury): Had a longer career behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer, but he had a brief run of hits 1959-63 starting with "Endlessly" and "It's Just a Matter of Time," some duets with Dinah Washington, a novelty about a boll weevil "just lookin' for a home," then added one more in 1970, "A Rainy Night in Georgia"; often regarded as a smooth singer, I'd say he was comfortable -- no strain, no struggle, but sure of himself. A-

Bobby Bland: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Bobby Bland (1961-74 [2000], MCA): Filed under blues because his label was too cheap to give him a state-of-the-art band like the Muscle Shoals outfit that lifted Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin into soul, but he was there in spirit from the mid-1950s on and his his prime in the 1960s; he never had much presence on the pop charts -- his only top-20 was "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" in 1964 -- but that doesn't matter much with him: the rule-of-thumb on his compilations is "more is more." A-

Pat Boone: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Pat Boone (1955-62 [2000], MCA): He's led a long and charmed life, with 38 top-40 singles, over 45 million albums sold, numerous movie and TV appearances, yet he's known today mostly as an extreme right-wing Christian blowhard and, for those aware of 1950s history, as the original cover artist -- a white guy who could take an r&b hit and turn it into pop hit by making it sound white (and let's face it, nobody sounded whiter than Boone, especially when he was bleaching out Fats Domino and Little Richard); this tries hard to give him a fair shake, omitting his "Tutti Frutti" in favor of its deadly flipside, including just one gospel (and an upbeat one at that), salvaging his two hits worth hearing again ("Love Letters in the Sand" and "Moody River"), never dropping below 11 on the hit parade (a feat they could have improved on by substituting "Why Baby Why" or "Long Tall Sally"), and ending with on a rocking note with "Speedy Gonzales" -- ding that if you want as a racist stereotype: that was, after all, his calling. B-

Tina Brooks: The Waiting Game (1961 [2002], Blue Note): A tenor saxophonist, led four sessions for Blue Note 1958-61 in a career that ended even before his death at age 42; this was the last, shelved until 1999 when it appeared in Japan; quintet with Johnny Coles (trumpet), Kenny Drew (piano), Wilbur Ware and Philly Joe Jones -- for anyone else this would be an eye-opener, but every album Brooks cut (at least for Blue Note) cooks like this. A-

Carpenters: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: Carpenters (1970-78 [2002], A&M): Siblings Richard and Linda Carpenter -- she sang and he produced and wrote a little -- were very successful in the 1970s with their mix of romantic ballads and pop remakes, especially in the anti-rock "adult contemporary" market I studiously avoided, so I have no idea whether this gives them a fair shake, but will note that the series' usual The Best Of was blotted out by their logo, and that only 5 of the 12 songs here come from their 17 top-twenty singles; only songs I enjoyed here were "Top of the World" and a "Please Mr. Postman" that didn't send me immediately back to the Marvellettes, although that's where I'll always look for it. C+

Johnny Cash: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Johnny Cash (1985-89 [2002], Mercury Nashville): His four years at Mercury yielded albums no more consistent than his decades at Columbia, but they could have sorted them out into a decent compilation of obscurities, but they had Cash re-record many of his classics and decided to go with them instead; it's not like he hadn't sung "I Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues" in thirty years, so the renditions are fine, but the whole thing is tinged with fraud. B-

Johnny Cash: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Johnny Cash Volume 2 (1985-90 [2007], Mercury Nashville): The remakes are down from eight to three, you get "The Highwayman" licensed from Columbia, and seven tracks from Cash's four Mercury albums including guest spots for Hank Williams Jr., June Carter Cash, and the Everly Brothers, but the best thing here is James Talley's tribute to "W. Lee O'Daniel"; just goes to show that if you try to compile a best-of from four Johnny Cash albums you're likely to come up with something even stranger. B+(*)

Cher: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cher (1971-79 [2000], MCA): Over the long run, more important as a multi-faceted entertainment mogul -- had a hit TV series, several exceptional acting roles, a live show as glittery as Liberace -- than as a singer; her three number ones here -- "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," "Dark Lady," "Half-Breed" -- are of a piece but nothing else really approaches them, and the fourth-best song here is the ringer with Sonny. B+(*)

Cher: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cher Volume 2 (1987-98 [2004], Hip-O): Scattered hits, anything -- even a remake of "The Shoop Shoop Song" -- to avoid becoming an oldies act, but to do so she came up with an arena sound as huge and inflexible as her voice and nearly every cut here merges into one loud thump -- exceptions are "Just Like Jesse James" (early and relatively clear) and "Believe" (late with techn flair). B-

The Commodores: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Commodores (1974-84 [1999], Motown): Had a reputation as a funk band, and indeed the only song of theirs I've heard in decades is "Brick House," but they got most of their chart hits from Lionel Richie ballads and they dominate here -- not quite a wet blanket, but few match "Three Times a Lady," or even try to split the difference like "Nightshift." B

Billy Ray Cyrus: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Billy Ray Cyrus (1992-98 [2003], Mercury Nashville): Country singer, has a reputation for being a one-hit wonder, but with 13 albums and 39 singles it's not for lack of trying; so many people dissed "Achy Breaky Heart" to me that I'm surprised to see how demure it is, but I suppose that's part of the hook -- and part of the reason why this most average of country singers hasn't been taken seriously since then -- only two of all those singles since 1993 (32 of them) went top-10 country, and one was co-credited to his daughter. B

Sammy Davis Jr.: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. (1972-74 [2002], Polydor): Back around 1960, before the civil rights breakthroughs, the black man you were most likely to encounter on network TV was this vaudeville-bred song-and-dance man, a consummate entertainer, what you'd now call a personality; I grew up admiring him, as much as I did Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole, but unlike them his musical legacy fails to satisfy my memory -- his career-spanning 4-CD Rhino box, Yes I Can!, is unlistenable, and not just because his only chart-topping single was 1972's ultra-icky "Candy Man"; as far as I can tell -- Davis is not someone the world has kept an immaculate discography of -- this is a late-career slice from a couple years on MGM Records, including the hit, its inevitably sequel, some more movie crap, and some show biz standards (including a Porgy and Bess medley); it has a few moments when you think he could be great, much more when you realize he's a hack, some that make you understand why, and some that are just unforgivable; aside from "Candy Man," you could zoom into any fragment of his career and find the same. B-

DeBarge: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of DeBarge (1982-86 [2000], Motown): Another family vocal group, the signature falsetto belonging to Eldra, who went on to have a spotty solo career as El DeBarge; I know people who revere In a Special Way, but I've never warmed to it or much of anything else -- it's intricate and artful but doesn't move me; this doesn't bother with their debut, The DeBarges, but adds El's first single ("Who's Johnny," number 3 in 1986). B+(*)

The Del Vikings: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Del Vikings (1956-58 [2004], Hip-O): Integrated doo-wop group from an air base near Pittsburgh, things got messy with contracts and a spliter group called the Dell Vikings, but they had two early hits you'll recognize from many doo-wop comps ("Come Go With Me" and "Whispering Bells"), and fare well with with other songs here, especially "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "The Big Beat." B+(**)

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (1970, Columbia): This is where Herr Zimmerman lets the air out of his own tires and drives around drunk on rims, thinking he's exacting revenge on the world -- not least for taking him too seriously, the first of many records to disabuse us of any such foolishness; not that I mind hearing him play "Days of 49," "Little Sadie," or a couple others -- he returned to that sort of thing on 1992's Good as I Been to You when he was finally finding himself again, but when your high points are throwaways, it's no surprise that your filler is for shit. C

Bob Dylan: New Morning (1970, Columbia): A return to form, although I'm less sure about the content -- the side openers are catchy but lightweight, the closers idiosyncratic and elusive, the filler overly repetitive; overrated in the wake of Self Portrait (although not nearly so much as Blood on the Tracks would be in 1975), but not unlikable. B+(**)

Freddy Fender: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Freddy Fender (1974-77 [2001], MCA Nashville): Baldemar Huerta cut a minor hit in 1959 called "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," his limelight cut short by a prison term, but eventually recut his song in 1974 and topped that with "Before the Next Teardrop Falls"; Fender's compilations are a mess, not least because he recut a lot: at least you can trust these cuts came off the ABC albums, but this gets gummed up in places -- one can surely do better. B+(***)

Four Tops: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Four Tops (1964-73 [1999], Motown): A marvelous vocal group anchored by the strong voice of Levi Stubbs, their heyday hits are among the most danceable Motown produced, but they have a tendency to excess, making them the one major group where more is often too much; however, the two post-1968 singles here are exceptionally delicate things, the first seven cuts are nothing short of awesome, and the two 1967-68 covers show that it really is possible to get away with murder ("If I Were a Carpenter," "Walk Away Renee"). A-

Four Tops: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Four Tops Volume 2 (1972-83 [2005], Hip-O): Not a second helping of Motown singles (even though the previous volume left "It's the Same Old Song" on the shelf, as well as shit like "MacArthur Park" that belongs there); rather, the group went to ABC in 1972 and Casablanca in 1981, and this covers those years adequately, with three singles charting 10-15, more that barely cracked the top-100, and some album cuts including a very hot medley thrash with the Temptations. B+(*)

The Funk Brothers: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Funk Brothers (1960-72 [2004], Motown): General, and probably post-facto, name for the Motown house band during the label's Detroit era (or for whatever musicians happened to be in the studio at any given time) -- there are several stories about how the name came about, but but it wasn't given any wide currency until the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown came out in 2002, and Motown didn't release any product under the name until this compilation of ten instrumental tracks plus two with backing vocals. Most are big hits for the label's various artists, but a couple did appear as singles by Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers (or just Earl Van Dyke) -- Van Dyke was one of Motown's regular keyboard players, and in most cases here the lead instrument is the organ. This would be a nice story if the tracks turned out to be brilliant, but they wind up being little more than Motown for karaoke. No doubt the band could play, but this was a singers' label with the producers often slipping in something marvelous behind the vocals, not in place of it. B

Marvin Gaye: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Marvin Gaye Volume 1: The '60s (1962-69 [1999], Motown): A decade's worth of spotty albums and scattered singles, not a lot of progress from 1962's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" to 1969's "That's the Way Love Is," but there's little to fault here, other than omitting hits with "his girls" -- not that separating Tammi Terrell out isn't a bad idea -- and stopping at eleven cuts. A

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967-69 [2000], Motown): They cut eleven singles (four top-ten) and three albums together before the 24-year-old Terrell succumbed to brain cancer in March 1970; this could have been fleshed out with cuts from Gaye's earlier duet albums with Mary Wells and Kim Weston as was the 1969 album Marvin Gaye and His Girls; as it is, this drops the last two singles in favor of earlier album cuts, front loads the hits, and ends with a steady sameness. B+(***)

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971, Tamla): With Gaye at least sharing every writing credit this should be the point where he graduates from performer to auteur, and three astonishing singles should be enough to anchor a landmark album, which this is often taken to be. Still, "Mercy Mercy Me" and "Inner City Blues" seem less articulate when mixed in with "Save the Children" and "Wholly Holy," where strings that are tolerable at best ripen and rot. Even "Right On" wears thin before its 7:31 expires, and the tail end of "Inner City Blues" got trimmed from the single. So, one of the most overrated albums of the era, flawed throughout, yet just magnificent enough. A-

Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man (1972, Tamla): This is where Gaye finally writes everything, but it's a soundtrack, mostly instrumental, some of it quite enjoyable (like the rhythm-and-sax "'T' Plays It Cool"), some struggling for air while being strangled by strings; five songs have some vocals, the title track a hit if not much of an advance. B

Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (1973, Tamla): Big hit single, keyed more to the lovers rock of Al Green than to the emerging funk focus, and rounded out with more quiet storm than one can absorb while still trying to "get it on" -- sexy, for sure, and no complaints about inconsistency or string-dreck or whatever. B+(***)

Marvin Gaye: Live! (1974, Tamla): Filler product, recycling his recent hits while relegating six from the ancient 1960s to the "Fossil Medley"; the new song is the dud here, but the live version of "Distant Lover" smolders so hot they released it as a single; Gene Page's orchestra is perfunctory, but they swell up impressively on the outro to "What's Going On." B

Marvin Gaye: I Want You (1976, Tamla): More filler product, although it's harder to say this was conceived as such; Leon Ware produced and co-wrote all the songs, more often with someone named Arthur "T-Boy" Ross than with anyone named Gaye, and two of the pieces also appear as instrumentals, not that there's any evidence of Gaye exercising, much less straining, his voice. B-

Marvin Gaye: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Marvin Gaye Volume 2: The '70s (1971-77 [2000], Motown): Gaye remained as inconsistent and sporadically brilliant in the 1970s as he had earlier, topping the singles charts only twice with pure funk moves, "Let's Get It On" and "Got to Give It Up" -- his most consistent album for Motown was probably 1978's divorce tantrum Hear, My Dear, unrepresented here; some great songs here -- the live "Distant Lover" is a revelation -- but they wind up getting to eleven by including an unvarnished demo the label had overdubbed and tried to pawn off as a posthumous single in 1991. A-

Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime (1981 [1994], Tamla): Last Motown album, following Here, My Dear, his settlement for his divorce from Anna Gordy; a very agreeable funk-groove album, passed me twice with no problems but also no songs standing out. B+(***)

Tom T. Hall: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Tom T. Hall (1969-84 [2000], MCA Nashville): Hall writes two kinds of songs: sharply observed but sympathetic stories, mostly about others (like "Who'll Feed Them Hogs" -- not here, but "A Week in Country Jail" and "Ballad of Forty Dollars" are), and sappy homilies (e.g., "I Care," "I Love," and "I Like Beer"); the former came earlier in his career, and his compilations are exactly as good as the proportion of the former to the latter; this one was picked mostly by chart position, and Nashville loves sappy (not to mention beer). B+(*)

Michael Jackson: Forever, Michael (1975, Motown): Fourth album, transitional as you'd expect from the 16-year-old artist although nothing that would make you anticipate Off the Wall four-and-a-half years hence. B+(*)

Michael Jackson: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Michael Jackson (1971-75 [2000], Motown): This shares "Got to Be There" with the Jackson 5 comp, but as long as they're stuck in Jackson's Motown period where his most mature work was done at age 16, you can see why: even without getting to eleven songs meant three singles charting 50 or below, two missed altogether, and an album cut that's even worse than "Ben" -- his one chart topper; on the other hand "Rockin' Robin" is fun, and the three cuts from Forever, Michael suggest he's starting to get it together, as he did spectacularly in 1979's Off the Wall. B-

The Jackson 5: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Jackson 5 (1969-74 [1999], Motown): The family business caught fire when 10-year-old Michael Jackson took the lead with four straight number ones -- "I Want You Back" and "ABC" brought back the jangle of Motown's heyday, but they rarely peaked like that again, even though they got away with a few ballads and lucked out with the rote "Dancing Machine"; this includes two songs released under Michael Jackson's name, one more I can't tie down to any obvious source; a very inconsistent outfit, brilliant for a moment. A-

Tom Jones: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Tom Jones (1965-71 [2000], Polydor): A saloon singer from Wales, known today as Sir Thomas John Woodward, OBE, had perhaps the oddest series of hits of anyone -- "It's Not Unusual," "What's New Pussycat," "Green, Green Grass of Home," "Delilah," "She's a Lady" -- in part because he was never a rocker but he fully understood how to play the garish rockstar life, throwing his excessive voice into kitschy songs with abandon. B+(**)

Eddie Kendricks: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Eddie Kendricks (1973-85 [2000], Motown): Falsetto lead for the Temptations in the 1960s, had a fair measure of success as a solo act 1971-81 -- the cuts here and most of his chart activity come from 1973-77 except for a closing medley of old Temps hits done live with David Ruffin and Hall & Oates. B+(**)

Gladys Knight & the Pips: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Gladys Knight & the Pips (1967-73 [2000], Motown): The Pips had a hit in 1961 and a career post-Knight, and Knight went on to have a few good years at Buddah and a long decline, but this sticks to their Motown years -- they came in as Motown started its decline and only had three top-ten hits -- the last a tour de force ballad, "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)." A-

Patti LaBelle: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Patti LaBelle (1984-97 [1999], Geffen): Started in the early 1960s as a doo wop singer with the Blue Belles, got a second act as the namesake but not the leader of the 1970s girl group Labelle, and a third in 1977 when she signed with Epic as a solo artist; two labels later she wound up on MCA for the long period sampled here. B

Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions (1961-72 [2000], Geffen/MCA): I don't think the Chicago soul group ever released an album with Mayfield's name up front -- doing so here lets the compilers tack two hit singles from Mayfield's Superfly contract onto ten extraordinary Impressions singles, with Mayfield's lead voice the unifying flow -- although Sam Gooden and Fred Cash, who carried on with the group name, contributed a lot too; Jerry Butler, by the way, left the Impressions before this series, and has his own excellent 20th Century Masters compilation. A

Roger Miller: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Roger Miller (1964-66 [1999], MCA): An underrated Nashville songwriter until his freakish mid-sixties string of novelties gained him stardom, a TV show that showed off his comic genius, and success he let ruin the rest of his life; you can find gems all over his box set, but the ten funny ones here are what he's reknown for -- from his cackling variant on yodeling ("Do-Wacka-Do") to cornball wisdom ("King of the Road," "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd"), and the two not-so-funny ones ("One Dyin' and a Buryin'" and "Husbands and Wives") show what deep roots the humor sprung from. A

The Mills Brothers: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Mills Brothers (1941-67 [2000]), MCA): Started recording in 1931, described as "four boys and a guitar," noted for their vocal mimic of brass horns; they were very successful in the early 1930s (17 top-ten singles), but this doesn't pick them up until they moved to Decca in 1941 and landed a number one with "Paper Doll"; their last big hit was "The Glow-Worm" in 1952, by which time they were using real bands and getting a looser pop sound that depended less on their harmonizing. B+(***)

Patti Page: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Patti Page (1950-57 [2003], Mercury): The best-selling female artist of the 1950s, selling over 100 million records, but her biggest hits came in the pre-rock half of the decade and even "Tennessee Waltz" and "Mockin' Bird Hill" sound rather maudlin today -- the lush "Old Cape Cod" holds up better, and "(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window" remains a curious novelty. B+(*)

Art Pepper: Gettin' Together (1960 [1984], Contemporary/OJC): As with his acclaimed 1957 album, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, Pepper trusts Miles Davis with his recruiting -- Paul Chambers is on both, with Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb here -- but adds Conte Candoli on trumpet for a relatively carefree outing between his ambitious Modern Jazz Classics and the intense Smack Up; OJC edition adds two alternate takes that give Pepper the focus he needs. B+(***)

Art Pepper: Art Pepper Today (1978 [1990], Galaxy/OJC): Quartet with Stanley Cowell (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), and Roy Haynes (drums), less avant than usual for Cowell and McBee with two lovely standards ("Lover Come Back to Me" and "These Foolish Things") and several of Pepper's fast boppish pieces, less than spectacular only by his own standards. B+(***)

The Platters: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Platters (1955-61 [1999], Mercury): A very successful vocal group in the late 1950s, somewhere upscale of doo-wop with their less-than-rocking string arrangements, led by Tony Williams with female vocalist Zola Taylor added to the quartet; they charted 40 hits 1956-67 so if you're into them you should look for a larger anthology; this includes all seven of their top-tens. A-

Lloyd Price: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Lloyd Price (1956-60 [2002], MCA): From New Orleans, had an R&B hit for Specialty in 1952 called "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (re-recorded here) and recorded enough to fill up a pretty good compilation -- Lawdy! (1952-56 [1991], Specialty) -- then moved to ABC and was all over the airwaves in 1959-60 with fourteen singles, three top-ten on the pop charts, more on R&B, then moved into business A-

Rare Earth: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Rare Earth (1969-73 [2013], Motown): Motown's token white group, had three top-ten singles -- "I Just Want to Celebrate" and two Motown standards best remembered elsewhere; this comp breaks with the 11-12 cut norm, giving you only 7 cuts but with the side-length album versions of "Get Ready" (21:32) and "Ma" (17:18) you wind up with more than an hour of music; while singles like "Born to Wander" are good enough, the long jams are way above the rock band norm; only on "What'd I Say" did they bite off more than they could chew. B+(***)

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas (1963-67 [1999], Motown): Originally the Del-Phis then the Vells, then from 1962 Martha and the Vandellas, with Reeves inserted in 1967 when Motown decided to put more focus on the lead singer; they only scored six top-ten singles, the biggest "Dancing in the Streets" at number two, but this sticks to their prime. A-

Smokey Robinson: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Smokey Robinson (1973-87 [2000], Motown): When Robinson went solo black pop was splitting into several streams -- disco, funk, hip-hop (ok, later), and a refined form of smooth crooning which Robinson was such a natural at his annual albums hardly ever got noticed; three top-ten singles, so unremarkable and so consistend you'd be hard pressed to pick them out from the misses. B+(**)

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: The Best of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1960-87 [1999], Motown): They mean "and/or" for "&": Robinson was the main singer-songwriter for the Miracles from 1959-72, but his name only appeared on the marquee from 1967-72; from 1973 on, Robinson and the Miracles split ways, the group recording a number one hit (the closer here, "Love Machine") in 1975, while Robinson's solo efforts are represented here by two top-ten singles from 1979 and 1987; generous as those three songs are for the chart-conscious, they could easily have been replaced by period songs, hits or not; still, the first six cuts are essential. A-

Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye: Diana & Marvin (1973, Motown): Their duet album, neither at an artistic or commercial peak, but two pros who can get under each other's skin and tweak them up a bit, when they have a mind to; three singles, the most successful "You're a Special Part of Me" peaking at 12, and no follow ups even though both were at Motown for another 7-8 years. B+(**)

Diana Ross: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Diana Ross (1970-81 [2000], Motown): A decade of adaptation, signalled perhaps by her willingness to play a very different singer in order to land a movie she couldn't capitalize on, but she retained sufficient star power to score six number one singles -- in almost as many styles, and only the Lionel Richie ballad is hard to swallow. B+(***)

Diana Ross & the Supremes: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Diana Ross & the Supremes (1964-69 [1999], Motown): Absolutely prime Motown, 10 (of 11) singles number ones, "Reflections" topping out at number two; only the last three were originally issued with Ross' name out front; should have been longer -- two number ones missed the cut, as well as "My World Is Empty Without You" and "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" -- but the 2CD Anthology starts to slack off. A

Diana Ross & the Supremes: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Diana Ross & the Supremes Volume 2 (1965-71 [2000], Motown): Leftovers, which after the first volume means two number ones, six more top tens, the others topping out at {11, 16, 16}; the last four cuts replaced Ross with Jean Terrell -- they fall off a bit, as much the decline of the studio as the change in singer, but not that much. A-

David Ruffin: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of David Ruffin (1969-85 [2000], Motown): With the most recognizable voice from the 1960s Temptations, his early singles sound more like the old group than the Tempts did in the 1970s, albeit without the group's polish, not to mention Kendricks' falsetto; I totally missed him at the time, so the echoes have an air of discovery, even if it's just an obscure footnote to a great group. A-

The Shangri-Las: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Shangri-Las (1964-67 [2002], Mercury): Girl group, had two big hits in 1964 ("Remember," "Leader of the Pack") and a third that many of you know better from the New York Dolls' cover ("Give Him a Great Big Kiss") but only had one top-ten hit after that ("I Can Never Go Home Anymore"); this winds up roughly equivalent to their first album, the filler replaced with failed singles -- more drama, less raunch, but comprehensive enough. B+(***)

Edwin Starr: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Edwin Starr (1965-78 [2001], Motown): Had a minor hit with "Agent Double-O Soul," a bigger one with "25 Miles," and a monster with "War" ("what's it good for? absolutely nothing"), big enough he followed it up with the almost identical "Stop the War Now" ("good God!"); he hung on for a long -- funky music may indeed have turned him on, but aside from the great "War" songs, his won't do much for you. B

Barrett Strong: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Barrett Strong (1959-61 [2003], Motown): A minor singer in Motown's earliest days, but his was the name on the company's first hit single, "Money (That's What I Want)"; he cut five more singles, all of them here, then hung on as a lyricist writing songs with Norman Whitfield, including hits for Marvin Gaye, Edwin Starr, and, especially, the Temptations; he left Motown and cut a couple albums in the 1970s and one in 2008; straight R&B, no special flash or charisma. B

The Supremes: Meet the Supremes (1962, Motown): Girl group, originally a foursome but down to Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard by the time the cover was laid out; mostly songs by Berry Gordy Jr. or Smokey Robinson, spawned four singles that went nowhere, although "I Want a Guy" and "Let Me Go the Right Way" are catchy enough. B+(**)

The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go (1964, Motown): The group's first three number one hits -- "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me" -- the filler rolled up from three 1963 singles, and B-sides that would have been A-sides a year before. B+(***)

The Temptations: The Best of the Temptations Volume 2: The '70s, '80s, '90s (1970-98 [2000], Motown): I'm such a pure fan of the Temptations' 1966 Greatest Hits that I've resisted every attempt to tack on later hits -- even the first four here ("Ball of Confusion," "Psychedelic Shack," "Just My Imagination," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"); the first volume, by extending through 1969, crosses my line with "Cloud Nine" but finishes as strong as this one starts; eight cuts from 1970-75, two 1982-84, one from 1998, nothing after "Masterpiece" strikes me as essential, but the remainder shows they were more than a perfunctory funk band and never lost the knack for changing up with a ballad. A-

Three Dog Night: "One" (1968, Dunhill): Originally a vocal trio, quickly expanded to a seven-member group, had a knack for picking up others' songs and turning them out as hits -- they had 17 top-20 singles 1969-74, starting with Harry Nilsson's "One" here -- was big enough the label added it to the cover of what had previously been their eponymous debut; closes covering an old song recently possessed by Otis Redding -- something their fans may not have realized, but history cannot judge so kindly. B-

Three Dog Night: Suitable for Framing (1969, Dunhill): Three hit singles: "Easy to Be Hard" (from Hair), "Eli's Comin'" (Laura Nyro), and "Celebrate" (with its "dance to the music" refrain, shades of Sly & the Family Stone); you can imagine them as the Bee Gees backed by Blood, Sweat & Tears, but they make both ends seem like hard work, probably because they're not as good as either. C+

Three Dog Night: It Ain't Easy (1970, Dunhill): Good news here is that they seem more comfortable in their skin -- this sounds less like a minstrel act; two hit singles, the memorable one Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" -- still, you know which version has stood the test of time. B-

Three Dog Night: Naturally (1970, Dunhill): Three hit singles here, with the harsh "Liar" least appealing, "One Man Band" catchy enough, and Hoyt Axton's "Joy to the World" one of the few songs they're remembered for. B

Three Dog Night: Harmony (1971, Dunhill): Two more top-ten hits -- Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain" (but, big fucking deal, "I've been to Oklahoma") and Paul Williams' "An Old Fashioned Love Song" -- and a near-miss (an upbeat party anthem called "The Family of Man"); then there's the filler, rarely this forgettable because in the past it's so often been objectionable. B

Three Dog Night: Seven Separate Fools (1972, Dunhill): One last number one single, "Black and White," which is too simple to be insipid, followed by Stephen Foster channeled through Randy Newman, which is too dull to use the phrase "sun shines bright"; the singers always struck me as too strained to be called slick, but as the albums become more eclectic, they lose what little substance they once had. C+

Three Dog Night: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Three Dog Night (1969-74 [1999], MCA): An economical package, with all 11 top-10 hits plus "Celebrate" (peaked at 15 but a better choice than "The Family of Man" at 12 if not "One Man Band" at 19), but the one thing that most strikes me about this group is how efficient they were at converting their more tolerable album songs into hit singles -- only "Joy to the World" is a grade-A single, and while nothing here is awful, there was no dearth of quality singles in this period. B+(**)

The Turtles: It Ain't Me Babe (1965, White Whale): With four songs from Bob Dylan (including their title hit) and two from P.F. Sloan, a near clone of the folk-rock synthesis of the Byrds, but with a straight-up energy that suggests they'd never found country-rock, and so little humor you can't imagine them turning into Phosphorescent Leech & Eddie either; still, for me their title hit is the archetype, but their "Like a Rolling Stone" is second-rate. B+(*)

The Turtles: You Baby/Let Me Be (1966, White Whale): The album named for two P.F. Sloan-penned singles that peaked at 20 and 29 respectively, they're looking for a niche, trying on garage rock and pop harmony, whoops and hollers, even humor and satire -- most successfully in a Bob Lind lampoon that notes "all they ever smoke is tobacco in suburbia." B

The Turtles: Happy Together (1967, White Whale): The group's only number one single earns its crescendo with its frail but catchy intro, then their second biggest single, "She'd Rather Be With Me," leads with the hook before it gets crazed -- you could imagine them rounding the album out with pop confections and psychedelic whirls (almost a fad in 1967) but all they came up with was the year's most preposterous crap. C-

The Turtles: The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (1968, White Whale): Having never figured out what they want to be, here they pretend to be everything and are at least happier for that -- even got two top-ten singles not that they're memorable; in fact, none of the music is as good as the band names: e.g., Quad City Ramblers, The Fabulous Dawgs, The Atomic Enchilada, Chief Kamanawanalea and His Royal Macadamia Nuts, Fats Mallard the the Bluegrass Fireball. B-

The Turtles: Turtle Soup (1969, White Whale): Produced by Ray Davies, fresh from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, all tracks by the band, a listenable cycle that doesn't put much more than their harmonies on display. B

The Velvet Underground: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Velvet Underground (1967-69, [2000], Mercury/Polydor): The compilers cheaped out on Loaded royalties by substituting earlier live versions of three songs, but otherwise this is as generous -- the 17:25 of "Sister Ray" pushes this over the hour mark -- and as select as possible, not that it comes close to exhausting any of the three essential albums on Verve. A

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Jr. Walker & the All Stars (1965-72 [2000], Motown): Saxophone player, best known for "Shotgun" with its organ vamp and sax-led call-and-response; not a bad singer, even taking a whack at "How Sweet It Is" and the sweeter still "What Does It Take," but his home turf is jump blues like "Pucker Up Buttercup" and "Shake and Fingerpop"; he manages to jump "Come See About Me" but "These Eyes" wriggles off the hook. A-

Dinah Washington: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Dinah Washington (1949-61 [2002], Hip-O): Styled herself "queen of the blues" but she aimed more for crossover pop and landed more in jazz even though, until her three top-ten pop hits in 1959-60, she spent most of her career on the R&B charts; trying to compile her by checking the charts is a fool's errand, guaranteeing you'll miss her most interesting work and wind up with lots of lame big band and string arrangements. B+(**)

Little Stevie Wonder: The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie (1962, Tamla): First album, something like 12 years old, no vocals, the little guy credited with percussion, keyboard, and harmonica, plus a share of two songs; really just an instrumental funk album by Henry Crosby and Clarence Paul, including a non-hit "Fingertips" and some starry-eyed dreck. B

Little Stevie Wonder: Tribute to Uncle Ray (1962, Tamla): Continues Motown's habit of throwing a tribute out there when they want effortless product, and better Ray Charles than Nat Cole; Stevie sings this time, a little warbly and sometimes almost a send-up, but his enthusiasm is infectious; could have used better songs, and had they been willing to spring for more than five from "Uncle Ray" they would have had them. B

Little Stevie Wonder: The 12 Year Old Genius: Recorded Live (1963, Tamla): Starts with the full 6:40 "Fingertips" that was edited down for his first hit single, follows it up with "Soul Bongo" and "La La La La La," and improves on two of the Ray Charles songs, but stops at 7 cuts, 23:36. B+(**)

Stevie Wonder: With a Song in My Heart (1963, Tamla): Think of this as his bar mitzvah album: the "Little" is gone from his name if uncertainly from his cracking voice, and the songs are some adult's idea of adult even if they are overly smiley -- "Smile," "Make Someone Happy," "Dream," "Put on a Happy Face," "Get Happy," "Give Your Heart a Chance," "With a Song in My Heart," "Without a Song" -- complete with treacly strings, enough to make your teeth hurt. C-

Stevie Wonder: Stevie at the Beach (1964, Tamla): If everyone's going surfin' now, why not the blind teenaged genius from snowy Detroit? The first side goes with the absurdity, with "Sad Boy" and various keyb-harmonica instrumentals; the backside tries to recover with a dance number ("Beachstomp"), a pumped up "Beyond the Sea," and some party anthems -- "Hey Harmonica Man" single-worthy. B-

Stevie Wonder: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1968-71 [1971], Motown): Like its predecessor, and unlike every subsequent compilation, this compresses a series of iffy albums -- For Once in My Life, My Cherie Amour, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, Where I'm Coming From -- into a coherent time slice, with a handful of transcendent songs and just enough iffy to remind you that growing up is hard even for geniuses. A-

Stevie Wonder: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Stevie Wonder (1963-71 [2005], Motown): Easily the better half of Wonder's two early Greatest Hits packages -- I'd trade "Blowin' in the Wind" and maybe "A Place in the Sun" for "Hey Harmonica Man" and, oh, "Never Had a Dream Come True" or "Never Dreamed You'd You'd Leave in Summer," but that's about it -- without getting into the period when he made albums where you won't want to miss a single song. A


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd (but made most sense to review here)
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [sc] available at soundcloud.com
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, or may be a promo deal