The Famous Door
While it’s not essential for a music critic to sing or play an instrument, it helps; similarly, it’s useful for a musician to have a critical sensibility—a framework of aesthetic values or standards to draw from and test one’s work against. It’s good for an artist to have a little critic inside, and few musicians I’ve known have had internal critics more acute and more demanding than the one inside Barbara Lea, the popular singer who died on December 26 at age 82. I admired Lea greatly and came to know her fairly well.
Best music of the year? I'll hedge and say only this: Here's a list of ten of my favorite albums of 2011, in no particular order. Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys!
I’ll hold my humbugs. We’re entering the blue center of the holiday season, and Christmas songs—that is to say, songs that we associate with the winter holiday season, regardless of the lyrics’ literal meaning—are all around us again. The Billboard album chart, itself a relic of a tradition meaningful mainly to box-store retailers and nostalgists, has in the number-one spot for the third week the Christmas CD by the smarm prince Michael Bublé.
It takes a special awfulness for an artist to be worth remembering not for the value but for the faults of his work. In American music, few well-established figures went quite so wrong as Stan Kenton, the pianist and orchestra leader whose centennial on December 15 will be recognized by concerts at Jazz at Lincoln, the Manhattan School of Music, and the University of North Texas, which houses an archive of Kenton’s papers and scores.
The music industry, whose economic status roughly mirrors that of Greece, is finally making once-unthinkable cutbacks in entitlements. The finalists for this year’s Grammys were announced this week, and some hugely popular acts who by tradition would have been guaranteed nominations were shut out of the top categories. With the weakening of the corporate oligarchy of the old-line record companies, the nomination process has loosened up a bit for the good.
An origin narrative needs grounding in place, and the myth of jazz’s maturation during the Harlem Renaissance positions the music in the nexus of black expression, white emulation, cross-exploitation, and kitsch at the Cotton Club. From the time of its rise in the Prohibition Era, the club has been notorious for packaging African-American performance as exotica for white oglers. A newly staged production at City Center in New York, Cotton Club Parade, does some repackaging of that packaging for the 21st-century.
The unironically monumental project of monumentalizing the music of the Baby Boomers has reached yet another landmark this month, with the release by Capitol Records of multiple editions of material the Beach Boys recorded in 1966 and 1967 for their aborted Smile album. Long mythologized as the lost masterpiece of rock, the album was reconstructed and revised several years ago by its principle creators Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for a concert tour and recording.
Lou Reed earned the prestige he holds as an arty badass of rock’s senior order. His best albums—Berlin and Metal Machine Music, chief among them—endure as testaments to the value of an ill temperament, intelligently applied. Once an undergraduate student of Delmore Schwartz, Reed has always hid a literate sensibility beneath the leathery surfaces of both his music and his public image. Still, the legitimacy of his standing as a canonical figure in rock does not legitimize something as feeble and malformed as Lulu, the new concept album he made with Metallica.
Who led the transformation of American popular music, the movement away from the refined formality of the Tin Pan Alley age toward the earthy vernacularism that we associate with the rock era? We think of Dylan, of course, and of Elvis before him, and when we scrunch our brows to remember their predecessors, we tend to come up with the names of figures we have come to think of as canonical: Woody Guthrie in folk music, Robert Johnson in blues.
Like the Victorian spirits and sci-fi demons who haunt her songs, Kate Bush has a way of drifting away and reappearing just when you had almost forgotten about her. After her spectacular arrival as a pensive and sensual woman-child of art pop in the 1980s, she recoiled, gave up touring, focused on recording, and fell into a pattern of retreat and return that she has kept up for decades now.