Friday, October 09, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part Four (89-87)

By the way, I'm getting all of the album art for these lists from Rate Your Music, a handy music cataloging and research site. In case you were curious. Which you probably were not.

89. Ben Folds, Rockin' the Suburbs
Ben Folds - Rockin' the SuburbsBen Folds is an avowed admirer of Randy Newman, so it's no surprise that his first solo pop album would take a similar approach: a series of short stories and character sketches, masterfully crafted and performed. Actually, the biggest surprise is how little his work suffers from the lack of his backing band -- though I love the Ben Folds Five (and they will most certainly show up later in our countdown), he shines here alone, playing almost all of the instruments himself. That autonomy results in an album that's more tightly wound than previous efforts (all those overdubs leave little room for improvisation), but the songs and performances are so brilliant that it doesn't matter.

And for a guy who achieved fame as frontman of "the piano band that rocks," Rockin' the Suburbs is stunningly low-key. Sure, the title track is a heavy hitter (and truly hilarious, as Folds lampoons the whiny white-boy metal of Fred Durst and his ilk), but it's wildly out of place. Even more thumping songs like "Not the Same" are tempered and almost delicate. And the album does work best at its most quiet: "Fred Jones Pt. 2" is practically whispered, and "The Luckiest" is love-song cheese at its very finest.

88. MC Frontalot, Nerdcore Rising
MC Frontalot - Nerdcore Rising Someone over at Pitchfork wrote recently that rapping about the internet is never cool. Well, MC Frontalot has never been very interested in being cool, as each and every beat of Nerdcore Rising proves. This is a phenomenally geeky record, obsessed with everything you'd expect to find rattling around a nerd's head: illegal music downloads, Star Wars, collectible card games, Penny Arcade, Nigerian email scams and girls in goth makeup. And as for Pitchfork, they might give a listen to "Indier Than Thou," which has choice words for their often tiring hipsterism.

The geekiness wouldn't be noteworthy if Frontalot weren't such a talented rapper, but thankfully he's a genius -- his work on tracks like "Charity Case" and "This Old Man" can stand up to any other "real" rapper you'd care to mention. And Front's blinding-fast delivery stacks up the clever rhymes and jokes high and deep, unfolding in the listener's ear over multiple plays. Screw Pitchfork: Frontalot turns being uncool into a art form.

87. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Bob Dylan - Blood on the TracksSome of Dylan's best songs are like listening to someone juggle. Take "Simple Twist of Fate," one of Blood's very best songs. He keeps piling on the lyrics, telling his elaborate and intricate story, and you know that every verse is going to end with a word that rhymes with "fate"...but you don't know which one. And that lends the entire song with an almost mysterious air of tension, waiting for him to finally land on that last line. This wouldn't work for most songwriters, of course. But Dylan isn't most songwriters, and Blood on the Tracks isn't most albums.

Inspired by either the end of a marriage (if you ask critics and fans) or the short stories of Anton Chekhov (if you ask Dylan), Blood on the Tracks is a largely bleak, somber affair; its short bursts of humor ("Tangled up in Blue") ring out like firecrackers. "Idiot Wind," on the other hand, is a head-shaking, drunken scream of rage, enveloping both the listener and Dylan's target in a shroud of bile: "You're an idiot, babe/It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe."

This is the album that turned me into a Dylan fan. I'd heard some of his bigger hits, but this was the first Dylan album I ever truly fell in love with. When I heard him tripping through "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I don't see how anyone could hear "Shelter from the Storm" and not understand it.

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