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Augustus Pablo’s Sonic Fetish, Remembered

Born Herbert Swaby in 1954, Augustus Pablo was an orientalist before orientalism was uncool. The minor-chordal “Far East” sound the reggae auteur favored as a composer, producer, and no-frills melodica master may have been inspired by the Skatalites’ Don Drummond, but it didn’t take long for prolific Pablo to spread his sonic fetish far and wide. Most notably with 1972’s East of River Nile, Pablo more or less single-handedly created what Yale’s very own dub scholar, Michael Veal, calls “a devotional genre of reggae exotica.” When Pablo died from a collapsed lung in 1999 (he also suffered from the nerve disorder myasthenia gravis), his sound had risen and fallen without the anointment of a successor.

It’s surprising that it took this long to assemble an anthology worthy of Pablo’s substantial legacy. This five-CD/DVD collection hits the high points of his career as soloist, producer, and sessioneer, while offering enough rarities (e.g., Willie Williams’s “No War”) to tease tyro completists. Aiming for flow over focus, Rockers Story shies away from either über-narrative or strict chronology: For example, Pablo’s relatively cheerful first single, “Iggy Iggy,” opens the set-concluding “Rare Rockers” disc.

Pablo converted to Rastafarianism early on, and music was his jihad; revolution haunted Kingston’s streets during the mid- to late ’70s, along with the studios of dub heavyweights such as Errol Thompson and King Tubby. Thompson engineered the thick, heavy rhythms that defined the instrumental singles (including the 1972 hit “Java,” which is available here only in a 1982 version) that were collected on This Is Augustus Pablo, Pablo’s 1974 debut album. Tubby, on the other hand, was a postproduction genius who liberally added special effects to Pablo’s tracks, resulting most notably in the arguably unequaled 1976 dub classic, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.

For an instrumentalist, Pablo the producer had a fine ear for promising young singers. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, and Earl Sixteen (whose “Changing World” may be Rockers’ sleeper hit) all rose to the occasion, providing seductive vocal tracks subsequently recycled into multiple versions. Pablo’s productions followed the harder “rockers” style through the late ’70s, when his career began to wane; history is on his side, however, and his experiments with digital dancehall rhythms during the ’80s have unexpectedly improved with age. (The same cannot be said for the drum-circle jam “Drums to the King.”) A shy and retiring star, Augustus Pablo ultimately stands alone on a green, misty mountain of greatness, and Rockers Story serves as a fine introduction to this not-so-jolly reggae giant’s bounty.

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Augustus Pablo’s Sonic Fetish, Remembered

Born Herbert Swaby in 1954, Augustus Pablo was an orientalist before orientalism was uncool. The minor-chordal “Far East” sound the reggae auteur favored as a composer, producer, and no-frills melodica master may have been inspired by the Skatalites’ Don Drummond, but it didn’t take long for prolific Pablo to spread his sonic fetish far and wide. Most notably with 1972’s East of River Nile, Pablo more or less single-handedly created what Yale’s very own dub scholar, Michael Veal, calls “a devotional genre of reggae exotica.” When Pablo died from a collapsed lung in 1999 (he also suffered from the nerve disorder myasthenia gravis), his sound had risen and fallen without the anointment of a successor.

It’s surprising that it took this long to assemble an anthology worthy of Pablo’s substantial legacy. This five-CD/DVD collection hits the high points of his career as soloist, producer, and sessioneer, while offering enough rarities (e.g., Willie Williams’s “No War”) to tease tyro completists. Aiming for flow over focus, Rockers Story shies away from either über-narrative or strict chronology: For example, Pablo’s relatively cheerful first single, “Iggy Iggy,” opens the set-concluding “Rare Rockers” disc.

Pablo converted to Rastafarianism early on, and music was his jihad; revolution haunted Kingston’s streets during the mid- to late ’70s, along with the studios of dub heavyweights such as Errol Thompson and King Tubby. Thompson engineered the thick, heavy rhythms that defined the instrumental singles (including the 1972 hit “Java,” which is available here only in a 1982 version) that were collected on This Is Augustus Pablo, Pablo’s 1974 debut album. Tubby, on the other hand, was a postproduction genius who liberally added special effects to Pablo’s tracks, resulting most notably in the arguably unequaled 1976 dub classic, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.

For an instrumentalist, Pablo the producer had a fine ear for promising young singers. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, and Earl Sixteen (whose “Changing World” may be Rockers’ sleeper hit) all rose to the occasion, providing seductive vocal tracks subsequently recycled into multiple versions. Pablo’s productions followed the harder “rockers” style through the late ’70s, when his career began to wane; history is on his side, however, and his experiments with digital dancehall rhythms during the ’80s have unexpectedly improved with age. (The same cannot be said for the drum-circle jam “Drums to the King.”) A shy and retiring star, Augustus Pablo ultimately stands alone on a green, misty mountain of greatness, and Rockers Story serves as a fine introduction to this not-so-jolly reggae giant’s bounty.

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Arthur Lee’s Futile Hipness, Reissued

‘Hey, listen, money is time,” Arthur Lee says after Love make a sweet, half-embarrassed stab in the direction of “Wooly Bully.” This being August 1967, the song was already ancient history, but so was Lee’s black Angeleno version of Anglophile folk-rock—almost. Newly reissued, with a disc comprising an alternate mix and various backing tracks and outtakes, Forever Changes captures the futility of hipness like no other record of its day. Lee’s lyrics now sound less like jive double-talk (which they are, and which Lee clearly intended them to be) than a series of profound meditations on time, violence, stardom, and the Sunset Strip. Enlivened by David Angel’s glorious orchestrations and the band’s Latinized rhythms and creepy fingerpicked guitars, the result is folk-rock as apocalypse and mariachi ellipse.

Along with “Wooly Bully” (which suggests that Lee could’ve used his Memphis roots and soul predilections to make his own Wild Honey) and the previously available 1968 tracks “Laughing Stock” and “Your Mind and We Belong Together” (on which Lee invokes Robin Gibb’s unnerving falsetto), the bonus disc offers a remix that nicely complements the original. Lee’s vocals are often a little higher in the mix, and you get to hear him rapping off of the top of his head during “You Set the Scene.” Perhaps the most telling variation occurs at the conclusion of “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”: The original version takes the song’s curious, sprung orchestral figure and makes it skip, as if thought itself had somehow gotten stuck; the alternate ends like conventional folk-rock.

Lee himself seems stuck—high on his own temporary fame, but impotent—in the brisk, amazing “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” which describes the Sunset Strip scene Lee had helped set in motion, back when Love was the next big L.A. rock group after the Byrds. A four-bar stutter-step guitar riff frames the song and continually interrupts Lee’s sentences; “Look up and see me on the/Moon’s a common scene around my town,” he sings. “Here where everyone is painted brown.” A trumpet plays one note for five measures before taking up the melody. Like the rest of Forever Changes, the song swings like summertime but feels like death, and makes any number of reasonable observations that Lee probably figured would fall on the world’s deaf ear.

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Bill Cosby’s Badfoot Brown

Forty years ago, Bill Cosby was the closest America came to a black president, garbed as he was in I Spy tennis whites. Unfortunately, the role of ambassador is a thoroughfare, and Cosby—along with other crosstown-traffic ’60s crossovers like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier—bore a burden of both mainstream and radical expectations that would inhibit anyone’s attempt at leading a normal life. No surprise that he’s been speaking out these days, trading in Jell-O for pound cake via the multimillionaire’s relentless assaults on black materialism and hip-hop culture. (Look for his own contribution to the genre soon.) The fact that he’s been lumped in with modern-day conservatism would at first appear to echo the tragicomic descent of Charlton Heston from civil-rights marches to bloodshot libertarianism. But it says more about how our culture has changed, rather than Cosby, and that’s reflected in this semi-anonymous tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., originally released in 1971. Never at a loss for words, Cosby included more than 2,000 of them in the original liner notes, an evocative snapshot of black bourgie radicalism at the time, which is to say that Cosby reveals an anger at his former tentativeness.

Yet the music is wordless, two side-long Sun Ra–esque modal kozmik grooves that share the wooziness of Albert Ayler’s work (the Dusty Groove label has never released an album that so aptly described the sonic temperament of its appellative) as well as Ayler’s mournfulness: The bassist on “Martin’s Funeral” breaks into “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” for a stretch, while the harmonica on “Hybish, Shybish” echoes desperately. Recalling a stretched-out version of pre-sparkly Earth, Wind & Fire circa Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the record’s personnel info has been sketchy, though there’s reason to believe that Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (of “Express Yourself” fame) may be the primary players, as the album does recall the stoned, off-kilter jamming of their “High as Apple Pie” series.

Cosby has always possessed a taste for avant-jazz, and Badfoot Brown reminds us that musically and philosophically, he’s no Stanley Crouch. Then again, Crouch wasn’t always Stanley Crouch, either—the passage of time does fatten us up to protect us from our better instincts. Former guest host Cosby forgot Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s name during a recent Tonight Show appearance, and I’ve been told by Dusty Groove that they’ve hesitated checking specific details with the notably irascible Cos, as he might not wish to relive this blast from the past. But that’s why memorials like this exist, isn’t it?

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Otis Redding and Marie Queenie Lyons

Whither soul? Nowadays, any poseur with a whiskey-voiced rasp gets tagged as a soulster, but even with such credible singers as Sharon Jones and Bettye Lavette working within the critical confines—blaring horns backed by a thunderous rhythm section—nobody in this age of prefabricated cool (with the exception of Mary J. Blige) willingly mines the depths that true soul requires. Even Aretha—yes, she’s still the Queen—hasn’t gone gut-bucket in years.

It’s a shame, because as these reissues prove, nothing sounds more vibrant, urgent, and alive than this music. Recorded on July 9, 1965, Otis Blue showcases the premiere soul singer at his zenith. Backed by members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Redding’s gritty genius overcomes the bloat of this double-disc, 40-track “special edition,” featuring mono, stereo, and live versions of the same 13 songs. Mercifully, he’s so great that he makes the constant repetition—six versions of “Respect,” for example—worth it. He brings gravitas to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of three Sam Cooke covers; a percussive singer, Redding vocally stutter-steps through “Wonderful World,” gleefully teasing the word “biology” out to “bye-ow-low-gee” just to fit the meter. He transforms “Shake” into a romping duel with drummer Al Jackson Jr., while his intuitive interplay with the band makes the Stones’ “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)” all his own. And ballads don’t get better than “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” wherein Redding musters up more pure feeling in the fade-out than today’s warblers eke out during their climaxes.

A similar spirit infuses Marie Queenie Lyons’s Soul Fever. Released in 1970 on James Brown’s King label, it was her first and last effort—according to the liner notes, she disappeared shortly after its release. That’s unfortunate, because Lyons had an exceptional voice, able to instantly shift from a sultry croon on “Daddy’s House” to the gospel shout of “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears.” Another strength is her unbridled fury, which keys ribald tracks like “Your Key Don’t Fit It No More” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Have It but You.” Plus, her take on the Godfather’s “Try Me” aches to the bone. These days, such truthful artistry is long gone: 38 years later, Soul Fever‘s cover—a beautiful black face, surrounded by encroaching darkness, struggling to be seen—has become a sadly apt metaphor for modern-day soul.

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Willie Nelson’s Trigger Cuts

Choosing Willie Nelson to headline the post-9/11 fundraiser “America: A Tribute to Heroes”—bypassing fellow icons Paul Simon or Bruce “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen, by the way—says a lot about how we value, and forgive, our own kind. ‘Cause that sumbitch Willie used to be a two-bit, drunken philanderer. He’s had a handful of marriages and fathered a bunch of oft-neglected kids. He smoked a joint with one of Jimmy Carter’s sons on the White House rooftop, and he serves as co-chair of the advisory board for NORML. What’s more, he shorted the IRS $16.7 million in taxes. Willie’s done everything but take the blame for a dead body or three along the gritty Texas honky-tonk roads of the 1970s (because you just never know).

All of this is made abundantly clear in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a mind-bogglingly thorough biography by Joe Nick Patoski, who’s authored similar tomes on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena. But Willie can just as easily be viewed as a Buddha who’ll give you the bandanna off his forehead and the New Balance off his feet. (Just don’t ask him to part with Trigger, the well-worn guitar he plays like a bass.) His track record is full of favors extended, respects paid, and time and money donated. He even fought racism when he brought country’s first prominent black singer, Charley Pride, into the fray, once kissing him on the mouth to break the ice for a dumbfounded audience of good ol’ boys.

Sin and salvation. Goodwill towards man. Uncompromising individuality. These are the themes that make An Epic Life worth the chore of weightlifting a 576-pager. Patoski enhances the narrative with his depiction of the songwriter-for-hire game during the Nashville Sound days, his firsthand account of the burgeoning Austin scene that gave way to the Live Music Capital of the World, and his blunt portrayal of the complicated friendship between Willie and his commercially inferior partner in crime, Waylon Jennings.

The release of An Epic Life coincides with Willie’s 75th birthday on April 29, and also dovetails nicely with One Hell of a Ride, a four-CD, 100-song box set that gleans mostly keepers from a five-decades-long recording career only slightly tarnished by overexposure. Included here are three rare, early recordings: “Man With the Blues,” “No Place for Me,” and “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song,” featuring a Hank Williams–type croon that predates his casual whine. Beyond that, the box borrows efficiently from the three phases of a career that stretched country to include jazz, folk, and gospel.

Willie’s holy trinity of songs—”Nite Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” the bluesy number made so famous by Patsy Cline it was declared #1 Jukebox Single of All Time by NPR—represent the Upstart Songwriter Era, as do fellow countrypolitan jingles “Hello Walls,” “Mr. Record Man,” and “The Party’s Over.” To commemorate the Cosmic Cowboy Years, we’ve got big-band barnburners “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Stay a Little Longer,” and “Whiskey River,” the cut Willie uses to open every concert. (This iteration also includes three must-have collaborations with Waylon, including the comical “I Can Get Off on You,” wherein the two W’s try to give up weed, cocaine, pills, and whiskey, thinking they could get high off their girls instead.) Lastly, there’s the Esteemed Vocalist Phase, during which Willie compensated for the years his deliberate singing style went unappreciated by reinterpreting standards (“Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind”), covering others’ hits (“Heart of Gold,” “Graceland”), and partnering on unthinkable duets (Patoski’s bio notes that “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” was recorded with Julio Iglesias as “bombers” were passed and puffed in the studio.)

It’s hard to believe that Willie perseveres, given the velocity with which he’s lived his life and the tragedies that’ve afflicted it. But perseverance is an integral part of the American Dream, and that’s what made the outlaw turned icon a natural choice to bid farewell to our 9/11 heroes—that, and because he’s a hero, too.

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Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Prog Attacks!

Sorry, Nuge. Sorry, Frampton. Double-live albums are for pussies. The ’70s were the era of the triple-live album. Santana’s Lotus. Yes’s Yessongs. Wings’ Wings Over America. Shit, you can throw Chicago’s four-disc Chicago at Carnegie Hall on the list—just don’t throw it on the stereo. And, of course, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, the album that proves the trio considered the 20-minute studio version of “Tarkus” restrained: Live, it balloons to a mind-crushing 27:24. And let’s not even discuss the 35-minute version of the “Karn Evil 9” suite that ends the show. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were some bloat-tastic motherfuckers.

Except they weren’t. As this deluxe reissue series reveals to the neophyte, the band’s brand of epic, classical-soaked prog was actually tight as hell. When you’ve only got three guys up there, even if each of them plays like a meth-addled octopus (and at least two of them do— guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake’s virtuosity is slightly more understated), the trend is always gonna be toward rhythmic impetus rather than solo frenzy. Simply put, Emerson, Lake & Palmer fucking rocked.

Their self-titled studio debut, from 1970, was a collection of stuff each member wrote individually, except for “The Barbarian,” which was cribbed from Bartók, and another cut, “Knife Edge,” that’s based on Janácek but also includes a healthy chunk of Bach. (In fine British rock tradition—see “Zeppelin, Led”—the songwriting credits didn’t reflect these appropriations until years later.) But the pattern— brain-blastingly loud organ and Moog lines, thundering yet surprisingly jazzy drums, almost mellow vocals, and songs that cribbed openly and shamelessly from classical—had been set. It continued on the band’s second and third discs (both released in 1971), Tarkus, and a live run through Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Trilogy was relatively pop-friendly by comparison, and featured “From the Beginning,” ELP’s second big single after “Lucky Man,” from the debut. But then came their studio masterpiece, the album that made them gods to stoned high-school students across America. Brain Salad Surgery, the 1973 album that got them selling out arenas (and the only one of these Shout! Factory reissues to come in a digipak, the better to reproduce its foldout H.R. Giger artwork), is a stone killer from beginning (their recasting of William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem” as an epic call to prog-rock battle) to end (the hilariously cynical “Karn Evil 9” suite).

Revisiting this catalog 35 (!) years later, it’s amazing how little music has “progressed.” Snip 20 random seconds of Emersonian Moog-frenzy from the live album and play it for a Wolf Eyes fan—see if he can tell the difference. Another quality that leaps out is the propulsive rhythm work. What happened to all the great British drummers? In the early ’70s, English boys could actually wail—Carl Palmer, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Alan White, and even Phil Collins were kicking ass behind the kit. This allowed ELP to dip into honky-tonk and even swing rhythms when the mood struck them—which it did with almost distressing frequency (“Benny the Bouncer,” “Are You Ready Eddy,” “Barrelhouse Shake-Down”). For prog-rockers, they sure liked to look backward. Listeners interested in sonic surprise should do the same. These six studio albums and two live discs are the gateways to a world of balls-out craziness the likes of which is nowhere to be found in rock circa 2008.

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Michael Jackson’s Nigh-Unstoppable Thriller Gets the 25th-Anniversary Treatment

Reimagining Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the World’s Best-Selling Album of All Time—takes boatloads of selective memory loss and revisionist visualization, but let’s go for it. Try to forget about the plastic surgery that ills you more than any ghoul could ever dare try; dismiss the homoeroticism of MJ naming both his sons Prince (echoing his only true competition for African- American superstardom in the ’80s); disregard the dangling image of his eight-month-old baby boy hanging from a balcony; disallow as evidence his various, uh, legal challenges. Discount the past 25 years of million-dollar music videos while you’re at it. We goin’ back, way back, back when the Moonwalk was new and nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins. Imagine Eddie Murphy still funny, MTV in its second year, and nobody knowing Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were related. What the 24-year-old former child star from Gary, Indiana, wrought upon the world that last week of November 1982 forever restructured pop culture in ways only Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, or the Beatles could relate to. Like Songs in the Key of Life for its generation, Thriller was flawless (if it had filler, it’s since become impossible to notice), effortlessly all things to all people . . . all 104 million who eventually bought it.

Michael was magic, in a way almost impossible to explain to tweeners weened on Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown. How to describe magic? Bereft of YouTube, TiVos, or even VCRs, a nation of junior-high students went to school the day after Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever aired with visions of MJ lip-synch-ing “Billie Jean” still imprinted on their eyeballs, mimicking moves with photographic reflexes like Monica Dawson on Heroes. Decades before Jay-Z, MJ could spit a verse or a chorus on a song—Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” or the Jacksons’ “State of Shock”—and chart a hit single. Thriller was so monstrously huge it was a fuckin’ toy: You could buy picture-disc vinyl LPs at Toys “R” Us, aisles down from the Transformers and Rubik’s Cubes.

Before its 80 weeks in the Billboard Top 10 and the eight Grammys and the first time Carlos DeJesus introduced the 14-minute “Thriller” video on New York Hot Tracks, Thriller was known for, y’know, the music. “Mama-ko, mama-sa, mama-ma-ko-sa” was African saxophonist Manu Dibango’s original chant on “Soul Makossa”—a scat of makossa, a Duala word meaning “I dance”—and MJ both bastardized and immortalized it forever four minutes into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” (The mantra’s so tribally indelible it’s now driving Rihanna’s techno-pop hit “Don’t Stop the Music.”) But the sentiment was in the right place: Off the Wall might be a stronger dance album than Thriller, but “Somethin’ ” still gets asses shakin’ 25 years later.

For Sony’s Thriller 25 anniversary release, will.i.am, Kanye West, Fergie, and Akon breathe some postmillennial energy into five of the album’s old mixes that we know and love, packaged with the unreleased 1982-era “For All Time,” plus a DVD of the Motown 25 excerpt and “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” videos. Funny how five years ago, Britney Spears would’ve been the obvious pop-hottie shoo-in to dip “Beat It” into the fountain of youth for a project like this; now, Fergie gets the call. Even more ironic is how, at this point in his career, MJ stands to gain more from these associations than do the guests involved.

Well, she doesn’t fuck up “Beat It 2008” at all, though she’s pretty interchangeable—any Pussycat Doll or Danity Kane–er would do. Will’s remix has his synthy signature coursing throughout a duet between Fergie and the 24-year-old Michael Jackson; he also makes “The Girl Is Mine 2008” Hot 97–ready with an Eric B–reminiscent beat and retro swaths of keyboard, with new vocals from MJ. Akon’s dub, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ 2008,” starts with plaintive piano before bustin’ out with a modern r&b shuffle that passes as a decent modernization; this time, the Duala intonation deteriorates even further (something like “I’ma-say, mama-sa, ma-mama comme ça”). “PYT 2008” clinches will.i.am’s bid to produce the eventual MJ comeback attempt, the best of all his Thriller 25 work: Mike’s alleged penchant for young things will never cross your mind. Kanye’s stab at “Billie Jean 2008” is the least remarkable here, alas, though like Fergie, he can’t be said to have fucked it up. The unearthed “For All Time” follows the mid-tempo “Human Nature” model and could very well become a mellow hit today, even in its old age.

As for Thriller itself, how does it hold up after a quarter-century? “Billie Jean” is still a slick production (peace to Quincy Jones) with bite, a kick-in-the-teeth snare drum hammering over a killer bassline prefiguring hip-hop’s beatbox innovations; hard to believe this album only spawned three videos, but of the triumvirate, “Billie Jean” needed the least help getting over. As a tune, “Thriller” is horror-movie schlock that’s completely forgiven thanks to Playboy Playmate Ola Ray and the zombie dance routine that quite literally launched hundreds of tightly choreographed pop-tart careers. “The Girl Is Mine” is schmaltz, but I’ll take it over “Say Say Say,” the other if-MJ-was-Lennon McCartney duet. And then there’s “Beat It,” with the most hyperkinetic guitar solo on a Michael Jackson record ever (peace to Eddie Van Halen), despite the many, many subsequent attempts (“Dirty Diana,” “Black or White,” etc.). Thriller remains the nine-song standard that every aspiring prince of pop still pines over way into the 21st century: hands down, the consummate crossover album.

OK, now open your eyes and face the present. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna all turn 50 this year. (Whoa.) MJ is a single father of three, if you wanna put it that way, and his cosmetic issues show no signs of ever letting up. Bad and Dangerous had their moments—certainly more than Blood on the Dance Floor or Invincible—but Michael’s last completely enjoyable album is still Thriller, the far-gone beginning of the end. Back then, who’da thunk Madonna would be making the best records of the three 25 years later?

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Good Old Boys, Rarely Meanin’ No Harm

John Anderson’s I Just Came Home to Count the Memories, the first of five new reissues from his ’80s Warner Bros. years, begins with the title track, which takes stock of the past but doesn’t linger a second too long. Not quite a star in 1981—he’d been scuffling around Nashville since the ’70s and had already cut a few singles and a couple albums— Anderson sang in a warm baritone that recalled George Jones’s swoops and Lefty Frizzell’s teasing midrange. He sounded lazy until you realized how artfully he changed registers, stretched out, or phrased and shouted like an r&b singer. “Memories” is a piece of overloaded Nashville formalism, from lyrics about “roses choking in the grass” to guitar lines that echo the vocal melodies to the finality of two rumbling piano notes that close the door on Anderson’s past for good. A tale of a busted marriage, it’s a canny take on country’s conflicted relationship to its past: “There’s no happiness in music/If someone isn’t close enough to care,” Anderson sings. Memories is an amazing record, with a superbly light-footed Dylan cover and the insane “Jessie Clay and the 12:05,” featuring a good old boy whose foolproof murder alibi gets derailed.

All the People Are Talkin’, from 1983, takes a break from Music City soldiers and instead uses Anderson’s band, with the singer himself on rhythm guitar. It’s his funniest, most gregarious record— with a soprano sax embellishing its straight-down-the-line funk, the title track evokes the urbane Lee Dorsey of Night People even as it casts Anderson as the object of derision. (He also throws in some quick, exact asides at the end, just like a big-band singer.) As a whole, the record makes domesticity sound like a roaring good time, and just for kicks, Anderson becomes an environmentalist on Fred Carter’s arty “An Occasional Eagle,” a Christmas calendar of a song, flawlessly delivered.

1984’s Eye of a Hurricane finds Anderson at what sounds like a slight remove from his fame and happiness. (He’d scored big with “Swingin’ ” off 1982’s Wild and Blue, itself recently reissued.) Hurricane‘s title track stands as his most convincing white-soul move, and one of the best songs ever written about staying out late in Tampa. Meanwhile, “Take That Woman Away” traps him in a marriage with a woman disinclined to let him escape. “She ran out to the car/Revvin’ up my old chainsaw,” he complains, and ends up gibbering in the rubber room.

At mid-decade, Tokyo, Oklahoma takes the persona of this superficially straightforward singer as far as it can go. The title track gets Anderson on a plane after a series of expensive long-distance phone calls, and “Down in Tennessee” is dislocation at its most nuanced. Finally, Countrified, from ’86, smells like a barrel of outtakes, although Tony Joe White’s “Do You Have a Garter Belt” suggests that this great country artist kept his erotic politics under wraps just to please the family.

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The Old, Weird America Marches Onward

In much the same way that modern writers must drive through the gateway of Ulysses, there’s not a box set of culled folk music that can evade being measured against Harry Smith’s incantatory Anthology of American Folk Music, as released on Folkways back in 1952. Columbia-educated painter and amateur (in the classical sense of “for the love of”) field recorder Art Rosenbaum admits as much in the notes to the new 110-track Art of Field Recording Volume 1, emulating Smith’s non-academic arrangements while deviating from them in crucial aspects. Smith’s set was the summation of what had come before: America’s folk, blues, gospel, hillbilly, and whatever other pieces of 78-rpm shellac had avoided meltdown during World War II while presaging what would come after it, changing entire generations of listeners (see Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, John Fahey). His was a compendium of commercial, studio-captured music, however, whereas Rosenbaum—like Alan Lomax before him—went out to the parlors, feed stores, and congregations of his subjects.

Folk conspiracy theorists surmised that AAFM wasn’t just a collection of purt’ fine tunes, but also a magical spell, arranged by artist-alchemist-experimenter Smith in a very specific order so that the total effect of listening would be to alter consciousness on both a societal and individual level. It worked, but the presentation (as with any magic trick) felt staged: You mean that sharecroppers and bootleggers dug fields as well as Aleister Crowley, Pythagoras, and Kabbalic numerology? Regardless, the old, weird American ghosts captured in that biblical tome (“Dock” Boggs, Henry Thomas, Buell Kazee) were no longer mere folk, but transformed into folk deities, haunting the cotton gins, porches, and distilleries of an America now passed.

On the other hand, the hundreds of people documented by Art and photographer-wife Margo on Art of Field Recording all feel immediate and resolutely terrestrial. They’re also not constrained to the South, with small pockets of folk popping up in Iowa and Indianapolis. Here, Rosenbaum writes about being “immersed in living folk music traditions that were still growing from ancient roots.” Rather than conscripting one to an archaic Invisible Republic, this music lives wholly in the present.

Perhaps that’s because some of the performers here may still walk the earth, as these recordings range from the days of the Eisenhower administration to earlier this spring. Time itself is suspended, to where it’s impossible to parse either ages or eras. Take the opening two songs: Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart pray down Satan’s kingdom with great fire, never betraying their combined age of 188 years nor the fact that the tracks were recorded last year, whereas seven-year-old Ray Rhodes sang in 1958 about the last public hanging in Missouri (which happened in 1937). Songs are intrinsically tied to both play and work: Fairgrounds and accompanying hoots can be heard in the background. Henry Grady Terrell huffs and swings a pick ax as he recounts how “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain,” while Ida Craig’s sublime a cappella version of “Sit Down, Servant” is captured while she irons. Mary Lomax (no relation), an 80-year-old residing in the Blue Ridge foothills of Georgia, reveals a wide breadth of British and American ballads. She might just be your grandma.

She definitely reminds me of my own (who partakes in that other great American folk-art form, quilting). Art Rosenbaum, too, perceives this collection as “only a part of the great patchwork quilt of American folk music.” Shape-note choir recitals, Jew’s-harp solos, rancheros, fiddle tunes, “Hambone” rhythms beat out on the body, as well as paintings, photos, and charcoal renderings—such snatches of past and present exist side by side, like some great extended family. At one point, you can even hear Art’s dad sing.