1. Algiers, “Cleveland,” from The Underside of Power (Matador)
The band originated in Atlanta; on its second album everything is inflamed, and “Cleveland” opens in a storm of noise, one made up as much by distant voices as weather. Inside the storm is the late gospel singer James Cleveland, singing “Peace Be Still.” He’s like a mountain; he’s one person the song is named for. His voice is big, commanding, and when Algiers’ Franklin Fisher takes the song it’s hard to tell where one voice leaves off and the other begins. There’s no sense of one person passing some greater song to another. The voice is everything: huge, flailing, blocked, crashing through all barriers. It’s like Paul Robeson who still has all his old Clash albums.
In this maelstrom — the pieces of it so loud and unstable there’s no center — you might think of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old shot to death by a white police officer in a Cleveland park in 2014. His name isn’t mentioned, but he’s invoked by Fisher as he begins to sing: “I never saw your face/But I can tell you’re there.”
“We’re coming back,” insists the chorus. Two and a half minutes into the song, sounds of people crying, wailing, sounds of fear, of separation, of death, seem to have replaced whatever instruments or machines are making the fundamental noise, but in fact they have only joined it — and Fisher rides over the clamor like some kind of judge. “It’s been the same evil power since in ’63,” he says cryptically. Names begin to flash up, as if they’re being chiseled into the statue of the song. Some you might recognize, others you almost certainly won’t, but every one is that of a black American whose death was written off as suicide or overdose, sometimes in jail, whether their families feared murder and a cover-up or not.
These are people, Algiers are saying, who need to be memorialized in a song this big, this good — so that after ten, twenty, a hundred years, when they and the song too have been completely forgotten, “Cleveland” will be found again. People will be attracted to it, to the terror in it, the refusal, the life. They won’t know the referents in the words, and they won’t need to, but they will want to know everything about the song, to understand why it’s so powerful, so they will try to find out what it is, where it came from, and who the people whose names appear actually were. Who was Sandra Bland? Who was Andre Jones? Who was Roosevelt Pernell? People will, in their way, want to join this community of the dead, because a community of the dead can also be a community of the future.
2. Shannon McArdle, “Country Music,” from A Touch of Class (Shandelion)
If you’d read Michael Robbins’s poem in the New Yorker in 2014, you might not have known that a modest, painfully nostalgic guitar solo was already running between the lines. McArdle, once of the Mendoza Line, erases Robbins’s sardonic loser’s digs (bless me, he says to Jesus, “I’ll make us both famous”) as if every thought in the song is one she’s had a thousand times before.
3–4. Jim Dooley, Red Set: A History of Gang of Four (Repeater), and Cam Cobb, What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? The Moby Grape Story (Jawbone)
The Dooley takes up 432 pages, features no less than three pictures of the author posing with his subjects, two of the shots so dark the figures could be almost anybody, and no index. It’s interesting. The Cobb is an A+ production. Not only is there an index, the sixteen pages of well-printed black-and-white and color illustrations are balanced in an excellent design. It’s also stupefying. Cobb imagines Moby Grape bassist Bob Mosley rising, along with the other members of the once-great, now-fallen band — the finest band to emerge from the San Francisco Sound, only to implode the night of the release party for its first album in 1967 — to fly to New York for a reunion session four years later: Four years that feel like forty. It’s first-class:
He nods at the bartender.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asks.
“Any kind. I don’t care.”
The bartender removes a bottle, opens it, and pours the beer into a glass.
“Here,” he says, handing the glass to the man with blond hair.
The traveler raises his glass. ‘Thanks,” he says, before taking a gulp.
There’s a brief silence.
“I’m John Smith,” the bartender says, holding out his hand.
“Bob Mosley,” the traveler replies.
“Is this your first time heading to New York?” the bartender asks…
5. Deaf Wish, Lithium Zion (Sub Pop)
From Melbourne, they have the courage of their convictions: that early Sonic Youth was it. The sound is compressed, claustrophobic, as if the studio had a ceiling that lowered as the songs were played.
6. Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, “It Isn’t Nice” (1966), from Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard Hitting Songs (Smithsonian Folkways)
I heard this on the radio a few months ago. I couldn’t imagine what it was: some kind of doo-wop gospel protest song? I called the radio station. The DJ said it was Barbara Dane. I remembered her from anti-war rallies in Berkeley in the Sixties: humorless, hortatory, giving speeches in songs. This turned out to have been written in 1964 by the Berkeley folk singer Malvina Reynolds, sparked by the Sheraton Palace Hotel sit-in that year — part of a wave of occupations attacking racist hiring practices that also targeted auto dealers and the Bank of America. The first lines of the song start right in the lobby: “It isn’t nice, to block the doorways/It isn’t nice, to go to jail/There are nicer ways to do it/But the nice ways always fail” — Reynolds had been part of the action, which didn’t fail.
The song is music before it’s anything else. It opens with a lovely, evocative folk guitar figure by Willie Chambers, one of the four who began in Mississippi in the early fifties; by 1965 they were singing backup on an early version of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” and in 1968 would take over the new FM rock radio format with the furiously authoritative eleven-minute “Time Has Come Today.” Dane is anonymous and forthright: She means to get it across that what she’s advocating isn’t obvious, that the argument the song is making is a choice. And then she begins to wail, not like a jazz or blues singer, not like a gospel singer, but like Dion in “Lovers Who Wander.” You can tell she isn’t entirely comfortable with the style, and that’s what gives her performance its pathos — this is another choice, another struggle. It moved me: the way it takes all of Dane’s concentration to let go, to let her vowels fragment as she sings the word mind in “If that’s freedom’s price/We don’t mind,” and she somehow also sings over it at the same time. More than half a century later, the performance can put you on the spot: wondering what the music is, wondering where you are in the song.
7. Neko Case, Hell-on (Anti-)
When I last saw her with the New Pornographers she never seemed to get a purchase on a song, and she doesn’t come close here.
8. James Williamson, “Last Night a Record Changed My Life,” Mojo (July)
The founding Stooges guitarist is a teenager, having trouble at home, and his West Point father hates rock ’n’ roll, so his mother sends him to an Army psychiatrist, who hospitalizes him; when he shows another patient his switchblade he ends up in the psych ward. He asks his mother to bring him his Bob Dylan albums. “So here I am,” he remembers, “and I laid that needle down on The Times They Are A-Changin’ and you could just see the horror, and the unsettling effect that it had on the people in there, until eventually they wouldn’t let me play it anymore! That sort of made it crystal clear to me about the impact of this guy, and how much that voice and that message would polarise people, and unify people in my age group.”
9. The Beat, Here We Go Love (Here We Go/Megaforce)
Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger broke up the band in 1983; now they both lead their own versions. Here Wakeling still reaches for what he can’t quite grasp, and ends up with more than most people even want. There’s nothing here to match “Save It for Later,” but a whole album of “Tenderness” is nothing to apologize for. With “The Love You Give” you hear the beat the group named itself for; “If Killing Worked” (“It would have worked by now”), a dance of flow and release, gives a special pleasure as you wait for the horns you just know are coming in, almost right now.
10. Pussy Riot, “Policeman Enters the Game,” World Cup Finals, Moscow (July 15)
With France leading Croatia 2-1, four members of the performance collective — three women, one man — ran onto the field. Each was dressed as a police officer: the late poet Dimitry Prigov’s “heavenly policeman,” the “carrier of the heavenly nationhood.” They had issued a manifesto stating the reasons and the purposes of their action, and a list of demands, starting with “Let all political prisoners free” and ending with “Turn the earthly policeman” — who “imprisons people for ‘reposts’ and ‘likes’ ” and “enters the game not caring about the rules” and “breaks our world apart” — “into the heavenly policeman.” Veronika Nikulshina and Kylian Mbappe of France high-fived with both hands: “I think I brought luck to his team,” she said later.
A furious Croatian dragged Pyotr Verzilov off the field; his team lost 4-2. A video of the interrogation that followed — all four were sentenced to fifteen days in jail — featured the displacing drama of an unseen cop shouting at Verzilov and one of the women, who looked more like real police than he sounded, as he wished out loud “that it was 1937,” when he could have taken them to the basement and had them shot. Someone will make up a World Cup trading card of Nikulshina and Mbappe touching hands and they’ll both carry it in their wallets the rest of their lives, with the man who stood in front of tanks after the Tiananmen Square massacre on the back.
Thanks to Brian Schill