Monday, July 29, 2013

Irena Sendler: a Holocaust Hero

The following is a guest post by the Lowell Milken Center:

Throughout the years numerous accounts have surfaced regarding the actions of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Irena Sendler story, although one of the most amazing tales to emerge from the era, was almost buried in the ash heap of history until a group of amateur historians -- high school girls from Uniontown Kansas -- uncovered the events and publicized the story.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 Irena Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker. She was employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality and she took care of the poor and dispossessed Jews in the city after the Germans occupied Warsaw. Historians estimate that Sendler was able to assist over 500 Jews locate hiding places during those early years of the war. The Zagota underground, of which Sendler was a member, helped the Jews survive in hiding which included paying for the Jews' upkeep and medical care.

When the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto and interned over 400,000 people in the small area Irena Sendler secured identification papers that indicated that she was a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. Using these documents she entered the ghetto to bring in food and medicines.

Sendler quickly ascertained that the needs in the ghetto far exceeded anything that she could have imagined. She realized that, while the supplies that she brought into the ghetto might result in a small easing of circumstances for a few people, she would be able to better impact more lives if she were to smuggle people out of the ghetto. Sendler began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, at first smuggling out street orphans but, over time, approaching families in the ghetto with the suggestion that they allow her to take their children out of the ghetto into hiding.

In an interview that was conducted with Sendler over 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler said as she described the long-ago events. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

Sendler and her underground compatriots employed a number of schemes that allowed her to smuggle the children to safety. Young children were often sedated and hidden in toolboxes and luggage, under tram seats and even under piles of garbage in garbage cards. Older children could be walked through the sewers that criss-crossed beneath the city and through which the children could be brought to the "safe" part of Warsaw.

Once a child had been removed from the ghetto it was vital to immediately find him a secure hiding place. Sendler and her underground comrades forged documents for the children and brought them to orphanages, convents and to homes of sympathetic Polish families who were prepared to accept the risk of hiding a Jewish child. As a social worker Sendler had contacts with many institutions and she exploited those contacts to secure hiding places for the children including at the Rodzina Marii (Family of Mary) Orphanage in Warsaw and in convents in Chomotow, Lublin and Turkowice. Sendler listed the names and coded addresses of the children on tissue paper and placed these pieces of paper into glass jars which she buried in her neighbor's yard, hoping to reunite the children with the Jewish community after the war.

After the ghetto was destroyed Zagota appointed Sendler, whose underground name was Jolanta, as the director of the Department for the Care of Jewish Children. Historians estimate that Sendler, together with Zagota, saved over 2500 Jewish children.

On October 20 1943 the Nazis arrested Sendler and brought her to the infamous Pawiak prison where they tortured her. Sendler did not reveal any information about the children's whereabouts. She was sentenced to death but Zagota members managed to bribe a guard and she was released to live out the remainder of the war in hiding.

In 1999 a group of rural Kansas high school students heard a rumor about Sendler's wartime activities and began to investigate the historical episode. Their research culminated in the creation of the Lowell Milken Center along with a wide-ranging project about Sendler's activities, Life in a Jar, which has now developed into a book, a website and a staged performance.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shabbat Gaming / New Rule For It's Alive

I spent shabbat with my good friends David and Yael. Shira, their nine year old daughter, was also home. David is a semi-regular at the Jerusalem game group.

We started the evening with Shira telling me that she wants to play a great game with me that she has called It's Alive; she went goggly-eyed when I told her I had created it. We played the basic game after dinner with a new rule change:

The following new rule is an official variant for the game of It's Alive, and will be the standard rule in any new editions. On your turn, you can - instead of buying, selling, or auctioning the top card of the deck - buy a card from someone else's graveyard directly to your board. It costs the buy value + the sell value of the card. You can pay this cost using any combination of cards and/or coins. I.e.:

Card valueCost from grave

This replaces the entire double step procedure of first paying to bring the card to the center of the table and then buying, selling, or auctioning the card.

In the basic games, this means that cheap cards are nearly always bought from graveyards, and expensive ones more frequently. In the advanced game I suspect that duplicate cards will be auctioned more frequently and expensive cards fetched from graveyards more frequently.

We played the basic game and Shira won.

After this, David and I drafted Magic cards before bed. The next day we played with our decks. I had to play three colors and I was feeling pretty vulnerable with my deck because it had nothing against fliers except for a Serrated Arrows. I lost the first game quickly because I didn't draw more than two lands. But I won the next two games with one of those level up white guys who gives all of your other creatures +1/+1 . David didn't get many fliers out, and the one that he got out I killed with the arrows. So I basically won because I had the big white guy; when I drafted it, it was choice between him and an equipment that you could use to tap an equipped creature for any color mana.

We drafted again and played again, and this time I lost two games, both with large buildups, and once again I had nothing to take out his fliers.

On shabbat morning before lunch, Shira taught me Thirteen, a game that we played with a whole mess of cards from various decks, though I suspect that it should be played with two standard decks of playing cards. Shuffle both decks, including the jokers. Each player gets thirteen random cards face down in ordered slots, numbered one to thirteen. The first player picks a card and places this card face up in the slot corresponding to the card value (A is one, K is thirteen), then reveals the card that was face down in that slot. He goes again using the newly revealed card. This continues until he reveals a card that corresponds to a slot that is already revealed. He then discards the unusable (for him) card. In case you didn't notice this part of the game is exactly like the solitaire game Clock.

The second player takes the discard if he needs it and proceeds the same way. Otherwise, he draws from the top of the deck and proceeds the same way. Play continues this way until one person has finished his board. He sets aside the last revealed card to use in place of a draw on any later turn that he desires. He shuffles all of his cards in with the deck and the discard pile, deals out twelve cards (one less than the previous round) and continues. If he draws or reveals a King, he can't play it obviously.

This continues until a player has only one card left and then completes his board, whereupon he wins. Jokers can used for any card, and if you draw a card that goes into a slot with a face up joker, you can replace it and reuse the joker somewhere else.

There are two choices in the game. 1) when to use a card you set aside from a previous round. 2) where to place a Joker, the significance of which depends - very slightly - on what cards your opponent has already revealed. These choices are not significant.

Shira won, with some jokers to spare.

Later in the day we all played Cities and Knights of Catan. Shira needed some help understanding the cards and occasionally deciding where to place roads and settlements. She won this, too.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Shabbat Gaming

I issued an open invite for people to come play games on shabbat. Nadine was over for shabbat; she was at our mutual friends on Friday evening where and when she and Noa played several games, including Thunderstone and Notre Dame. Nadine and Noa's family came for lunch, and so did David. Ben came in the afternoon, and so did Rosalyn and her husband and son. Tal joined us for a short time near the end of shabbat.

David's first modern game was Ticket to Ride, which I taught him a few weeks ago. He enjoyed it and seemed eager to play again or learn more new games. He has had experience with longer games (of the Avalon Hill variety) in his youth.

Before lunch, I taught him Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. He played black and won by killing Frodo. After lunch, Nadine, Noa, David, and I played Tribune. We played with an easy set of conditions. I had an ok first round but made terrible progress on all other rounds. Nadine won, with Noa only one laurel short of completing her conditions on the same turn. Nadine thinks she would have won on points anyway.

While we were on our last rounds, I taught Rosalyn and her family and Ben to play It's Alive. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Next, Ben, David, Nadine, and I played Carson City. David and Ben tied at fifty points, with David winning on turn order. I had 43 and Nadine had 41. I took Sheriff on the first round but only secured three points from him, which is kind of a waste. I ended up with control of nine squares on the board, but it wasn't enough to supplement my poor interim scoring. Ben and David had more guns, which gave them an edge, even though there was little fighting.

Meanwhile, I also played Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix with Rosalyn and her family. They picked it up ok, and we made it through two laps. I had the most money when we stopped.

For the last set of games, I taught Ben and David how to play Tichu and then I called and made a grand Tichu on the first hand (partnered with David). We only made it through a few hands.

Rosalyn, her son, and I also started Settlers of Catan, but it was slow going as they relearned the rules. Tal took over for me so I could concentrate on Tichu. Nadine eventually took over for Tal and Tal joined us. Shabbat drew to a close and we had to abandon both games midway.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 5-1

See: 35-3130-2625-2120-1615-11, 10-6


Here it is, the most perfect, most angelic album (so far) from Sarah. What makes this one so much more than her others, so much more than nearly any other album, is its unearthly quality: without any association with religion, this album is holy. Sarah takes the listener away from this planet to some mystical other-world of pure spirit. This is an album of pure surrender.

The instruments don't so much as play as haunt the melodies.  The vocals don't so much as sing but breathe. Lyrics and voice float through the air like ghosts; three random examples:

"'I need some distraction Oh beautiful release Memories seep from my veins Let me be empty Oh and weightless and maybe I'll find some peace tonight"

"And I have the sense to recognize That I don't know how to let you go Every moment marked with apparitions of your soul I'm ever swiftly moving, trying to escape this desire The yearning to be near you"

"Am I already that gone? I only hope that I won't disappoint you When I'm down here on my knees And sweet surrender Is all that I have to give"

5 star songs: Building a Mystery, I Love You, Sweet Surrender, Adia, Do What I Have to Do, Witness, Angel, Full of Grace


Pink Floyd was the most ambitious - and talented - rock group ever. Other groups created notable 8 or 9 minute songs; sometimes they sounded like they strained to stretch the songs out for that long. This album is dominated by a single song - in two halves and nine parts - that runs 26 minutes. And, like their previous 23 minute opus Echoes (on Meddle), it's pure bliss. Of the remaining three songs, one of them (Wish You Were Here) is also pure bliss; the others sound fantastic within the context of the whole work (and are premonitions of their albums to come).

I wish I knew how they had so much sense: it's possible to make an 8 or 9 minute song, or a thematic album of connected songs, but to make a single 20+ minute calm yet intense, relaxed yet never boring song - nearly all instrumental - takes more than just ambition and talented musicians. It takes a genius for melody and dynamics: when to crescendo and when to diminuendo, when to strum and when to roar. This is Pink Floyd at the height of their control, patience, and dedication to the perfect sound (before Waters took the band through Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut, growing more political, angry, and desperate with each album).

5 star songs: Shine On You Crazy Diamond 1-9, Wish You Were Here


Ah, Joni. I have several other Canadian female singer songwriters on this list, and each aspires to imitate or succeed Joni, the godmother of Canadian female musicians. Interestingly, this album is infused with the sunlit mornings and starry nights of California.

No one else ever conveyed so much naked honesty, longing, tumult and tranquility, song after beautiful song. The guitar is subtle and strong, the lyrics pure poetry, and her voice ... her famous voice dips, stretches, leaps, cries, and laughs, and still sounds fresh after hundreds of listens and more than 40 years. Only Joan Baez could compete (but Joan kept rigid control over her voice and generally sang other people's or traditional songs). Over the years, Joni has remained a true artist, both musically and otherwise (she famously worked with other art genres, such as providing the painted covers for many of her own albums). She's never written a song that betrayed her artistic conscience, even when the fans of her old material didn't follow her new directions.

This album is perfect ... nearly perfect. I just barely docked the last song (The Last Time I Saw Richard) a star because it's a little weaker than the rest of the songs; I'm still not sure. It probably deserves its fifth star.

Other amazing albums of hers include CloudsLadies of the Canyon and Court and Spark, and, as she moved into her jazz period, large portions of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and Hejira.

5 star songs: All I Want, My Old Man, Little Green, Carey, Blue, California, This Flight Tonight, River, A Case of You


This album and the next are my only albums that contain nothing but 5 star songs from beginning to end; they are absolutely perfect.

This album, which was the best-selling album of all time for a while (before Thriller) and which spent more time on Billboard's chart (835 weeks) than any other before or since (second place is 490 weeks, so far), was a bridge between the early and middle periods of Pink Floyd. The album perfects the integrity for which the early albums were famously striving,. The songs are shorter, but they bleed in and out of each other with sound and music effects so that you can't tell where one ends and the next begins. Like most Floyd albums, it leads in and fades out with the same piece of music.

The vocals are integrated equally with the instruments (they were more washed out on earlier albums, and were overemphasized during the Waters dominated albums). The instrumentation is supplemented with the creative (and at the time groundbreaking) use of various noise-making objects, like clocks, metronomes, and (what sounds like) helicopters, spoken voice, odd primal screams, and wordless voices.

The album tackles the subjects of corporate greed, time, death, and insanity. The result is genius, captivating, monumental, timeless. It is the premier modern listening experience, and it has never been equaled.

5 star songs: Speak to Me, Breathe, On the Run, Time, Great Gig in the Sky, Money, Us and Them, Any Colour You Like, Brain Damage, Eclipse


The best album I know and the only other album I know with only 5 star songs. This album doesn't have an overarching theme like a Pink Floyd album does; it's just eight perfect musical compositions.

Richard Thompson is a fantastic guitarist and lyricist, with a gift for matching the right music to the right lyrics. His lyrics are as painful and cutting as Dylan's, but his guitar is not simply there to support the message of the song; the music continues to speak after the lyrics are done, and it keeps going, one haunting refrain after another.

Though the album has gifted lyrics, melody, and music, what makes the album is the beautiful voice of Linda Thompson. She is as sensitive with her singing as Richard is with his guitar; soft, plaintive, aching, wistful. Richard isn't as powerful a vocalist as Plant or Gilmour - in fact, he sounds like he's from the Fleetwood Mac school of singing: 3 am, slightly drunk, in the depths of misery - and Linda is not as powerful as Joni or Joan, but when she sings, or when they sing together in harmony, they sing beautifully. The albums that they made together (including I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey, and the critics' favorite and nearly as good Shoot Out the Lights) were an order of magnitude better than their solo efforts (which makes their rather public falling out all the more tragic).

Sweet singing, lovely music, and 8 perfectly written and performed dark songs about pain and heartache. What more could you ask for?

5 star songs: Streets of Paradise, For Shame of Doing Wrong, The Poor Boy Is Taken Away, Night Comes In, Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair, Beat the Retreat, Hard Luck Stories, Dimming of the Day/Dargai

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the list, and please leave in the comments any albums that you think I would enjoy based on this list.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 10-6

See: 35-3130-2625-2120-16, 15-11


Pink Floyd - Animals

This is the first of four Pink Floyd albums on this list, and all four are in my top ten. This album's inclusion is also somewhat of a surprise to me; I usually think of this as a lesser Pink Floyd album, forgotten between some of their more popular ones.

But this is still Pink Floyd at the height of their lyrical and musical power: Waters has begun adding his scathingly personal politics and lyrics, but they harmonize with some of the finest engineering and playing from Gilmour, Mason, and Wright. There are only 4 songs on the album (one is divided into parts). The melody writing is superb; songs are balanced just so, the instruments entering and exiting, building up and disappearing at just the right moments. The songs creep into your head. Pigs (Three Different Ones) is the only song I don't favor quite as much; it's a bit of a retread of Have a Cigar from Wish You Were Here, and I don't really like to listen to oinking in my music. Sheep has a bit of One of These Days from  Meddle in it, but finds new ground to cover (and I liked One of These Days more than Have a Cigar, anyway; Meddle nearly made this list).

Five star songs: Pigs on the Wing, Dogs, Sheep


Sarah's album right before this, Surfacing, was a pinnacle (for Sarah and for music, in general). I thought that she had nowhere to go but down. How can anyone keep making music that sublime, that holy, that wonderful, at that level?

Somehow, amazingly, she created a whole new collection of songs that are as sublime and wonderful (if not quite as holy). While she can hardly do better than Surfacing, this album is darn close. Ethereal, beautiful, poignant, sad ... well, maybe not quite as sad as Surfacing, and the songs bring her back among us mortals. Some actually have a bit of a bounce to them. On this album she's trying to capture something, find something that she can connect to, rather than just drift around, content in the perfect beauty of her loss.

5 star songs: Fallen, World on Fire, Drifting, Train Wreck, Answer, Time


Sarah McLachlan - Laws of Illusion

Afterglow has 6 essential songs and 4 very good songs; this album has 9 essential songs (1 is a reprise) and 4 very good songs. She is now far from the holiness of Surfacing (perhaps because she got it out of her system with Wintersong, which was released before this) and entirely entrenched in love and relationship ... or rather its loss: these songs are mostly about losing love.

Sarah's voice and music is as sublime and wonderful as ever, and her melodies, harmonies, and compositions are just as lovely. These songs are even bouncier than the ones on Afterglow. The lyrics are a tad trite and ordinary in some places, but they are sweet and sad, which is fine. I think - and this is no coincidence - this this would be what Pink Floyd would sound like if they were fronted by a woman.

5 star songs: Awakenings, Illusions of Bliss, Forgiveness, Rivers of Love, Love Come, Out of Tune, Heartbreak, U Want Me 2, Love Come (reprise)


Van Morrison - Moondance

Die-hard fans and critics will tell you that Van's debut album Astral Weeks was better (because it was more groundbreaking and less accessible). In my opinion this is the great one. It has all the weird jazzy folk pop intensity that he pioneered in Astral Weeks and adds a rich collection of catchy wonderful melodies (I feel the melodies were weaker on the first album).

Like other albums on this list, Van Morrisson carries you away into something liminal, distant, hazy, mystical, and soulful. Yet, on his Motown-influenced ballads, he can be very real and present, an alpha-male personal love-struck suitor.

Into the Mystic and Moondance are two of the finest songs by anyone, ever.

5 star songs: And It Stoned Me, Moondance, Crazy Love, Caravan, Into the Mystic, Brand New Day, Glad Tidings


Pink Floyd - A Momentary Lapse of Reason

This is the first of the last two Pink Floyd albums, which means that it doesn't include Roger Waters. Waters had a searing political agenda that drove the band in a certain direction. The awesome musical abilities of the rest of Pink Floyd carried this agenda, but I'm actually rather happy to see him gone here. This album has a freer, less negative and more playful spirit, with a looser, less-rigid theme, without sacrificing any of the amazing musicianship.

There is a nod to Waters'-style political lyrics in Dogs of War (which is a good song, but one the two that I don't rate 5 stars), but the rest of the album is about dreams, flying, adventure, and compassion (kind of a boy's fantasy). The first side contains some fantastic independent songs; the second side is an epic, wondrous fantasy of forests and winter as enchanting as anything written by any rock group; it has four songs (one is split into two parts), but it may as well be one song.

5 star songs: Signs of Life, Learning to Fly, One Slip, On The Turning Away, Yet Another Movie - Round and Round, A New Machine (parts 1 and 2), Terminal Frost

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 15-11

See: 35-3130-2625-21, 20-16


Kelly Clarkson - Breakaway

I already admitted that I was surprised at some of the entries on this list; here's one of them. Some people thought that Kelly's creative efforts had hit their high point on her debut album after her American Idol win - obviously not. This followup is a strong collection of collaboratively written hit songs from one end to the other.

What makes them work, aside from the catchy melodies, is Kelly's powerful, steady, soulful voice, which alternates between raw ferocious and raw bleeding, and some honestly painful lyrics. Kelly really is a great singer, and not just a pretty performer. Maybe there is a little too much early Avril here and a little too much production. She manages to rise above the mainstream morass of cookie-cutter / schmaltzy popular music; this is a great rock album.

5 star songs: Breakaway, Since U Been Gone, Behind These Hazel Eyes, Because of You, Addicted, You Found Me, Hear Me, Beautiful Disaster (live)


Alanis Morissette - Jagged Little Pill

Unlike Kelly, I feel no compulsion to make excuses here. Alanis is truly an independent incredible talent. The anger on this album sounds so familiar because she pioneered this attitude that others imitated.

Alanis is special because of her poetry and her performance. She doesn't write a few words of pain and sing them over and over, hoping to hook you with the chorus. Each song is a complete story and some of her songs don't even have choruses. She is not afraid to expose everything real. She curses when she has to. She admits that she can be just as wrongheaded and difficult as the people she's singing about, when she has to. She can't help but be brutally honest.

As for her performance, Alanis, like Sinatra and Dylan, sings slightly off the beat and rhythm, sometimes fast, and sometimes slow, so that her songs don't become pretty, polished, perfect pop songs. She wants you to know it's her and you, alone. She's not here to sing; she's here to talk. And you have to listen. If only someone would have taught her what the word "ironic" means.

You also can't miss her followup Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

5 star songs: All I Really Want, You Oughta Know, Hand in My Pocket, You Learn, Head Over Feet, Mary Jane, Ironic, Not the Doctor, You Oughta Know (alternate)/Forgive Me Love


Renaissance - A Song For All Seasons

Renaissance returned in 1978, after several years of lovely but electric-guitar-less albums, with this tour de force prog rock album about love and life. It's a more personal album; their previous albums were dramatic but distant, about other cultures, myths, and epic stories. This one is all about the heart, but it's still vast, majestic, and epic music.

It's also their last great album; after this they incorporated synthesizers into their music. The result was a mess and the band quickly fell apart.

5 star songs: Opening Out, The Day of the Dreamer, Kindness (At The End), Back Home Once Again, Northern Lights, A Song For All Seasons


Led Zeppelin - IV

Each instrument on each song contributes in perfect balance: Bonham's drums are heavy and resonant, Page's guitar is sublime, Jone's bass (and other contributions) is both delicate and thunderous, and Plant's plaintive, screeching-yet-controlled vocals soar around and through the music with ethereal grace.

Led Zeppelin may have laid the groundwork for heavy metal music, and this music is as heavy as it gets, but it's not a heavy metal album: it's blues infused with strong elements of folk music and hard rock. I think of heavy metal as instrument-centered, overwhelming you with drums and guitar, with vocals that serve the instruments in a wall of sound and fantastical but irrelevant lyrics. Led Zeppelin keep everything in balance. The instruments, vocals, evocative lyrics, and melodies serve the song; the blues and folk tempos keep it all grounded. The melodies are defined just enough to contain it all, and the result is a classic album. And, of course, there's Stairway to Heaven.

Led Zeppelin I, II. and III were also great; all their albums were pretty great.

5 star songs: Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Stairway to Heaven, Misty Mountain Hop, Going to California, When the Levee Breaks

[Until now, all of the albums had at least one filler song (unless noted). Albums 11-3 have no fillers; all songs are very good (4 stars) or essential (5 stars)]


Simon and Garfunkle - Wednesday Morning 3 AM

This is the only completely bare folk album from S and G. Their other albums sound less like the Everly Brothers and more like the sounds you may be more familiar with from The Boxer and America.

Actually, only some of the songs on this album sound like the Everly Brothers; slower songs are more like gospel infused with the quiet, subtle, startling harmonies for which these two are so famous. The songwriting is a mixture of evocative gospel and poetry. You would swear that the gospel is centuries old (ok, some of it is, admittedly, from traditional sources). The poetry is as good as it got in 20th century New York. The guitar serves mainly to accentuate the voices and lyrics.

They made four other albums - Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, Bookends, and Sounds of Silence - all of which have classic songs on them, though they all have (what I consider to be too many) filler songs.

5 star songs: You Can Tell The World, Bleeker Street, Benedictus, The Sounds of Silence, Peggy-O, The Times They Are A-Changin', Wednesday Morning 3 AM

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 20-16

See: 35-3130-26, 25-21


R.E.M. - Out of Time

It's hard to take this album seriously. It sounds like they sat around throwing together melodies, lyrics, and vocals, and had a ball. Earlier R.E.M. albums have an earnest, youthful intensity; later ones have a melancholy seriousness. This one is just goofy. What can you say about a song with lyrics like "Throw your love around, love me love me / Take it into town, happy happy / Put it in the ground where the flowers grow / Gold and silver shine"? Say what?

Somehow, maybe by accident, they hit on some really catchy alternative pop tunes. Combined with their signature upbeat guitar sounds and Mills' and Stipe's snide business-like vocals - with the unexpected, uncharacteristic, yet fantastic female vocals of Kate Pierson (The B-52s) - you get something that's so fun and so aware of its own joke that you just have to go along with it. And I'm not even a huge fan of the album's hit song.

For other good R.E.M. albums, don't miss Reckoning (early college sound) and their followup to this album Automatic For The People.

5 star songs: Near Wild Heaven, Shiny Happy People, Belong, Half a World Away, Texarkana, Me In Honey


Dar Williams - The Honesty Room

College music was never more collegiate than Dar Williams on this album.

Dar Williams' debut album (after two self-published cassettes with limited distribution and generally weak songs) rocked the independent folk music scene (and impressed the likes of Joan Baez, who covered Dar's tunes and then went on tour with her). Dar is brutally honest here in a way that she (unfortunately) never was again: about gender roles and discrimination, about youth and maturity, about suburbia and relationships. Her poetry is so good that you could read it in a book and not know it for song lyrics.

She plays some fine finger-style guitar and sings with a gorgeously aching vulnerability, while still conveying strength and determination, while still being totally fetching. She sings like a little child (literally, on When I Was a Boy and The Babysitter's Here), like an intimate lover (In Love But Not at Peace), and like a concerned activist (The Great Unknown). And she still finds time to be funny (Alleluia and The Babysitter's Here), nostalgic, and deeply feminist.

5 star songs: When I Was a Boy, Alleluia, The Great Unknown, The Babysitter's Here, You're Aging Well, In Love But Not at Peace, This is Not the House That Pain Built, i love i love ( traveling II )


Sarah McLachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

The first of four Sarah albums on this list, this was her first great album. (I can't help but notice that this list contains a number of Canadian women).

Sarah has a stunning, ethereal, haunting voice ... ok, so do Enya and Loreena McKennit; they are fine musicians, too, with some great albums. Unlike Enya and Loreena, whose songs are like theatrical performances, Sarah's songs are contemporary, raw, and penetrating.  Despite the repeated lush synthesizer overlays, she sounds naked, vulnerable, always one step away from complete mental or emotional collapse:

"Hold on, hold on to yourself, for this is gonna hurt like hell." "The ice is thin, come on dive in, underneath my lucid skin, the cold is lost, forgotten" "My body aches to breathe your breath, your words keep me alive" You just want to hold her - or yourself - after experiencing her music.

And then there's Ice Cream; who doesn't want to hear that his or her love is better than ice cream, chocolate, and anything else that is known?

5 star songs: Possession, Plenty, Good Enough, Mary, Elsewhere, Ice, Hold On, Ice Cream, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

[Until now, all of the albums had two or three filler songs (unless noted). Albums 17-12 have only one filler song each; all other songs are very good (4 stars) or essential (5 stars)]


Cindy Kallet - Working on Wings to Fly

Here is Cindy's debut album, a synthesis of masterful finger-style guitar, clever catchy riffs and melodies, assured singing, a rich deep steady voice, and lyrics about the sea, harbor, and environment. Many of her songs - which she wrote - sound like they are centuries old.

From the opening chords of Nantucket Sound to the final notes of Shores of Africa with its unexpectedly lovely harmonies, there is little to complain about. The introductory chords of Blackberry Downs are so beautiful it makes the heart ache. This is the standard in contemporary folk-music excellence.

5 star songs: Nantucket Sound, Wings to Fly (Crow), Three-Masted Schooner, Blackberry Downs, Roll to the River, We Rigged Our Ship, Far Off of the Mountains, Out on the Farthest Range, One for the Island, Shores of Africa.


Lynn Miles - Slightly Haunted

This was Lynn's "debut" (her third album, actually). This album has a bit of engineering and other instrumentation - Chalk had almost none. Just enough to add the slight haunting at the appropriate places.

This may sound familiar by now, but here is another collection of haunting, aching, beautiful songs. Some are raw, sad, and naked (Loneliness); others are carefully constructed masterpieces (I Loved a Cowboy, The Ghost of Deadlock). The melodies, together with overlays of strumming guitars, are full of melancholy. Maybe it's the Canadian in her, but each song feels like winter is coming soon: time to go home and cuddle up under a blanket until spring. In Last Night she even pays homage to, and channels, Joni ... just a little.

5 star songs: You Don't Love Me Anymore, I Loved a Cowboy, Loneliness, The Ghost of Deadlock, Last Night, Big Brown City

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 25-21

See: 35-31, 30-26


Cindy Kallet - 2

Cindy's debut album is higher up on this list; this is her sophomore release. This woman, a soccer mom originally from Martha's Vineyard  and the coast of Maine, is a damn fine guitarist with a captivating baritone voice. The album contains nothing else, nothing but a singer and her instrument. What makes this album so special is the relentlessly good guitar, voice, tunes, and writing: fisherman's music on the rocky coast of Maine so evocative that you can smell the tangy spray and hear the seagulls.

Cindy's lyrics are heartfelt, playful, strong, and full of a yearning for the simple joys of walking on a seashore or watching clouds drift by. She throws in a few complaints about war, sexism, and the absence of a lover; just the kind of talk you'd expect from a good friend on a quiet, contemplative day.

The album has only a single filler song; the rest are either very good (4 stars) or essential (5 stars).

5 star songs: Listen I Think the Rain's Come, Trying Times, Steamboat to the Mainland, Marblehead Neck, If I Sing, Mountains Range, I Don't Have To


The Cranberries - Everyone Else is Doing It So Why Can't We?

The Cranberries were a kick in the pants to alternative music with their breathy vocal murmurings and airy and evocative guitar and keyboards. Their debut album captures a magical misty mood that lingers long after the music ends.

It's not exactly hard, or soft, or casual, or serious, or angry, or wistful, or even alternative. It's a world out of focus, like somewhere in the middle of a David Lynch film. Whatever. This album packs a great bunch of tunes.

Other good albums are No Need to Argue and To the Faithful Departed (although the latter gets a bit heavy-handed with politics).

5 star songs: Dreams, Sunday, Pretty, Linger, Wanted, Put Me Down


Lynn Miles - Chalk This One Up to the Moon

Lynn's second album was, like her self-titled cassette, not released in widespread circulation, and is now extremely rare (the above copy on Amazon will run you $200).

It's filled with beautiful, evocative songs sung with naked simplicity. It's nearly as good as her wide-release "debut" album (her third, which is higher on this list). She plays well and she sings with an angst like heartbreak. This is folk music with a gorgeous voice, mesmerizing guitar, elegant tunes, and poignant lyrics. Listening to this album is like listening to a really good coffee house singer with a warm cup of coffee in your hands. The album has a few filler songs, but the best songs are worth repeated listens.

5 star songs: All I Ever Wanted, It's Gone, I Can't Tell You Why, Nobody's Angel, A Little Rain, Never Again


Carole King - Tapestry

Carole has the familiar, languorous voice of your sister lounging around, drinking iced tea on a hot summer Sunday afternoon in a Brooklyn brownstone (just like on the album cover). Maybe the vocal familiarity is specific to me, since I grew around that kind of voice in that kind of environment (actually I lived in the suburbs, but I visited Brooklyn often enough, and my relatives sounded like her).

Carole was already famous for her songwriting, and this album proved that she was just as good doing her own interpretations. Her post-liberated, early-seventies soul-infused lyrics and jazzy voice blend with the understated rhythmic piano to create songs that are cool, intimate, casual, and earthy. She sounds as good today as she did back then. The fabulous Rickie Lee Jones and Beth Orton are her direct descendants.

5 star songs: I Feel the Earth Move, It's Too Late, You've Got a Friend, Where You Lead, Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman


Donovan - Fairy Tale

Donovan's second album is his strongest, and an astounding work from a 19 year old runaway doped-up beach bum. No one inhabited the hippie dippie flower child image like Donovan. By the late seventies, everyone was making fun of him, but he was the real deal.

He writes and sings like he means it, and he really does mean it. Bob Dylan was jealous of him; they both had some catchy melodies, but Donovan could actually sing. Dylan's grittiness and anger is more powerful, and his poetry more cutting; Donovan's is more genteel, uses more allusions. Dylan sings about physical pain and politics, while Donovan sings about spiritual ache and love as allegories for physical pain and politics (except for some songs in which he is more direct, like Universal Soldier). It's the difference between America and Britain in a nutshell. Both are awesome. Do you want to feel enraged and bitter or wistful and moved?

After this album, Donovan's next albums pretty much led everyone else in the transition to psychedelia and electronic instruments. I've never been stoned, but I suspect that listening to Barabajagal is about the same experience.

5 star songs: Colours, To Try For The Sun, Sunny Goodge Street, Oh Deed I Do, Circus Of Sour, Candy Man, The Ballad Of A Crystal Man, The Balland of Geraldine, Universal Soldier [on some versions]

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 30-26

See: 35-31


Fleetwood Mac - Rumors

Nearly 40 years on, this album of pop standards is still fresh because a) the songs are so tight, and b) each song showcases a different combination of talents. It's like they passed around the guitar to each member and said "Here. Give us your best."

Actually, many of the songs sound like they were sung at 3 am on the floor of a recording studio, exhausted after six hours of fighting, while intoxicated ... which is actually how the album came to be. Other bands with similar sounds in the seventies are dated (Seals and Crofts, anyone?). Where they were all style, Fleetwood Mac added weariness, pain, and soul.

While some of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs (Landslide, Sarah, Gypsy) are on other albums, this album contains nothing but good songs the whole way through. Their eponymous album has a similar sound (this is like part 2 of that album).

This album also has no filler songs; it's not more highly ranked because the very good songs slightly outweigh the 5 star songs. I admit that some of the songs that didn't make my 5 star song rating might have been 5 stars on some other band's album.

5 star songs: Dreams, Don't Stop, Go Your Own Way, Songbird, Gold Dust Woman


Dar Williams - Mortal City

This is Dar's second major album (her debut is higher up on the list). This album contains simple guitar playing, carefully constructed melodies and harmonies, and some poetry of immense power. It's not higher on the list only because the songs that are not 5 stars are only ok (as opposed to really good; at least they are not bad). This is the second of her two great albums (so far); she has a good material on subsequent albums, but it's mixed with a lot of artifice.

At this point, Dar was still singing folk music with just a little bit of electric instrumentation thrown in. February is one of the best songs of the last 50 years, and The Christians and the Pagans is both meaningful and hysterical.

5 star songs: As Cool As I Am, February, The Christians and the Pagans, This Was Pompeii, The Ocean, Family


Lynn Miles - Unravel

Lynn has two other albums higher on this list. This is her fifth album, counting her self-released self-titled cassette. Some people like her fourth album (Night in a Strange Town) more, but, oddly, that album is the only one of hers that I'm not crazy about.

Unravel sees her transition from the poignant but sweet and simple sounds of her early albums to a raw anguish that comes from a late night of brooding over cigarettes and whisky. I'm Over You is perfectly stunning and haunting. Black Flowers sounds like it should be a far older song. The album has a few missteps, such as the somewhat dull When Did the World, and a few lovely phrases, like "sad songs matter most". Lynn mostly sings beautifully, daringly, and wistfully. Listen at night, while on the road.

5 star songs: I'm the Moon, Undertow, Over You, Unravel, Black Flowers, Surrender Dorothy


Coldplay - Mylo Xylo

Unlike some of my friends, I think Coldplay gets better with each album. Yes, the original albums had unique and wonderful songs that were more groundbreaking, but many of the other songs on those albums were fillers. The number of fillers gets smaller on each album (I also really like Viva La Vida and X & Y). Mylo Xylo is their first true concept album, and while not completely free of fillers, the good songs now seem to flow effortlessly. I even love their new visual style.

The wall of sound, catchy tunes, thumping lively music, and vocal harmonies are just so ... Coldplay. Mylo Xylo is a story about dystopia, but it never feels anything less than happy.

5 star songs: Hurts Like Heaven, Paradise, Charlie Brown, Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall, Princess of China, Don't Let It Break Your Heart


Renaissance - In the Beginning

I'm surprised that I have Renaissance albums - two!- in my list; I would have thought that my enjoyment of inhumanly high-registered vocals over relentlessly over-produced pretentious music would have faded since I left my teens. Why hasn't it?

Maybe I'm still excessively immature. Maybe it's that this pretentious, inhuman, and even hokey, but exceedingly dramatic and talented prog rock band (think Rush, Yes, ELP, etc) stretched the boundary of operatic rock music to the absolute limit. This album, which is a re-release of their first two albums Prologue and Ashes Are Burning, is a kind of culmination of rock: masterpieces of nine minute epic prog rock piece performances, delicate, inventive, powerful, sonorous. Tiring. They reached the edge of the world; rock music had to go somewhere else after this.

5 star songs: Spare Some Love, Rahan Khan, Can You Understand, Let It Grow, Carpet of the Sun, Ashes Are Burning

Monday, July 08, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 35-31

Of course, this won't be your list of top albums. It's probably not even my list of top albums: I probably forgot about a dozen albums that should be on it.

I rate songs between 1 (awful) and 5 stars (essential). I typically delete songs rated 1 or 2 from my collection. Given a choice, I would always listen to a 5 star song instead of a 4 star song, unless I've just heard the 5 star song several times in a row. I have rated some very, very good songs as 4s, and some perfectly fine songs as 3s.

The criteria for inclusion on this list are 1) at least 5 (or nearly half of the album, in some exceptional cases) of the songs on the album are 5 stars, 2) there are no 1 or 2 star songs on the album, 3) there are no more than 3 filler songs, and 4) not a compilation album. This criteria is not perfect; there are albums that are more than the sum of their parts, like Born to Run and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are albums that are unarguably more important than the ones I have included. But that's my criteria.

The criteria leave out many lovely albums - and even entire artists. Great albums from Adele, The Grateful Dead, Aztec Two-Step, Heart, The Beatles, Norah Jones, Greg Brown, Enya, Suzanne Vega, The Swell Season, and many others, did not make the list. The album may contains a few essential songs, and many very good songs, but the wrong balance of each. Or the album may have a few too many filler songs (fine songs, but not toe-tapping good).

The ranking is generally based on the average rating of the album. A higher ranking usually means less filler songs. The highest ranked albums have no fillers, only essential (5 star) and very good (4 star) songs. The top two (really three) albums are simply perfect.

The results surprised me is several ways, with the inclusion of certain albums, and with the glut of albums by the same two artists in the top ten.


Terry Reid - Terry Reid

For those who don't know, Terry Reid is the guy who turned down the job of lead singer in the about-to-be-formed Led Zeppelin (Page wanted him, but Reid had a prior commitment, so he recommended Plant to Page). The reason you don't know about him is a) the above story, and b) a series of contract and producer mishaps he encountered in his early years.

Terry has a gorgeous voice, his guitar playing and musical arrangements are top rate, and his songs and lyrics are as good as anything created in the sixties. There is a purity to this music that is hard to find elsewhere. He  (or at least this album) deserves a lot more recognition. This music is like where The Yardbirds would have been after they matured a few more years.

5 star songs: Stay with Me Baby, Friends, May Fly, Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace, Rich Kid Blues


Meatloaf - Bat Our of Hell

The album that made Meatloaf and Jim Steinman into superstars, this album opens like a bomb and lets up only for the three ballads. The album is kind of "over-produced". But it's played with such equal parts tongue-in-cheek and earnestness that it works. The pounding piano, the smashing drums, the frenetic beat, the yelling frustrated edge-of-desperation male vocals, the over-the-top lyrics. It's like heavy metal music without the heavy metal instrumentation.

Three of the songs go for over 8 minutes. Lots of kids in the seventies lost their virginity while listening to this album. Nowadays, I have to be in a certain mood for this to hit the playlist.

5 star songs: Bat Out of Hell, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad, Paradise by the Dashboard Lights


The Sundays - Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

This was my first album obsession as an adult. For two years I drove from New Haven to Fairfield every weekday. On the way to work I listened to side A, and on the way back to side B.

The Sundays only released three albums; they took their time and only released an album when they felt it was completely done. Unfortunately for us, marriage and children came first for them, so they stopped making music when it interfered too much with their lives.

They are squarely in the alternative music genre, and specifically the "wall of guitars" sound sub-genre; think The Smiths with a pretty female British voice and lighter, happier music. This album doesn't quite hit criterion 1 (at least half 5 star songs), but it contains no fillers at all; every song is good. They sing about the small quirks, confusions, and questions of daily life in London.

Actually, some of my favorite Sundays songs are on their followup, Blind, which is also a great album.

5 star songs: Here's Where The Story Ends, Can't Be Sure, My Finest Hour, Joy


I don't listen to Bruce very much. While I think this is a fantastic collection of songs, I'm just not often in a Bruce mood. But I can't help tapping my foot to just about anything on this album. The man knows how to write a melody. Bruce, like Tom Petty, is often overlooked for his writing because his songs are wrapped in catchy loud beats. But he is a true American artist.

In my head I think of Born to Run as the better album, because the 5 star songs on Born to Run - Thunder Road, Born to Run, and Jungleland - are better than any songs on Born in the USA. But Born in the USA is solid the whole way through, while the supporting songs on Born to Run range from good to filler.

5 star songs: Born in the USA, No Surrender, I'm Goin' Down, Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark.


Colbie Caillat - Coco

I bought this album blind, based on an Amazon automatic recommendation. The moment I put it into my CD player and heard the opening strands of Oxygen, I knew instantly: my teenage daughter will love this. I love it, too.

Colbie's music is just so sweet and unaffecting, optimistic and honest. It's home-brew, low key folk pop, without the overproduction that artists (or engineers) put on to try to impress you. This is not an album of power hits, but it's also not just folk music. Colbie has a strong, assured, and reassuring voice. You can listen to these songs all day and hear breezes from the sea, taste a daiquiri, and feel better about the world.

Her followup Breakthrough is also particularly good.

5 star songs: Oxygen, The Little Things, One Fine Wire, Bubbly, Realize.