Leonard Cohen/Craig Finn

These sinners-cum-sages have always derived much of their best work from a fraught relationship with the lord. That remains the case on both of these records—Cohen’s 12th and Hold Steady front man Finn’s first as a solo artist—only this time both are more concerned than usual with death. Of the two, it’s 77-year-old Cohen who affirms life, probably because his is the more serious reckoning.

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
“I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” So Leonard Cohen, in the voice of an entity far more omnipotent than himself, begins this self-described “manual for living with defeat.” He’s winking at you with that “lazy bastard” stuff. Cohen takes his time between records (eight years have passed since his last), but only because he selects his words with care enough for the Book of Life. Cohen has given up on singing per se, and these songs are slow even by his standards, but he still recites gold: “Had to go crazy to love you/Had to let everything fall/Had to be people I hated/Had to be no one at all,” goes “Crazy to Love You,” the ‘you’ he addresses corporeal or otherwise. That has something in common with “I needed so much/to have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way,” from 1984’s “Night Comes On.” Cohen’s a practicing Jew, but he’s also a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, and his obsession with having and being nothing as a means of attaining peace, or at least relinquishing control (“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show,” he told the Times in 2009) isn’t surprising for a man who spent five years in a Zen monastery. But peace is even harder than faith, and Cohen’s pursuit of both wouldn’t mean half as much if he weren’t so ornery, so horny, so hellishly funny. ”Both of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly, I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone,” he growls on “Different Sides,” the object of his frustration sounding very corporeal indeed. There is always too much to touch. No one knows that better than the man who’s been to the monastery and back. Be thankful for him while he’s here. A-

Craig Finn: Clear Heart Full Eyes
The title is a play on an oft-repeated motto from the late, great TV series “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The point, I think, is to turn the youth and exuberance of that phrase into a description of that sad moment when experience begins to overtake wonder. At least I do after spending some time with the characters inhabiting Finn’s first solo album. Like older versions of the American boys and girls The Hold Steady has chronicled over its spectacular five-album run, these older boys and girls look for redemption in music, church, and booze, almost never in that order. But where The Hold Steady once raised a “toast to Saint Joe Strummer,” Jonny Rotten is the touchstone here. As in, “No future for you, no future for me.” Recorded with Nashville session players, the album works best on folk noir tales like “Western Pier,” in which a drifter who may have just gotten away with something very bad gets more mercy from the judge who’s “sorry love’s been such a let down” than from the lord himself. Less impressive are the moments when, in both voice and words, Finn retreats to the cadences of a Hold Steady album, and you start to miss Tad Kubler’s guitar. Thankfully, Finn’s knack for poetic omission is put to perfect use here. “I went to the SA to get some cigs/I asked the doorman to remember me/I looked up to see the moon/And I saw you and him out on the balcony/It was the same thing that you did to me.” Do we let our minds take us to the extremes of what that “it” could be or is she just, I don’t know, lighting the guy’s cigarette? These characters hurt too much to tell the whole story. B+

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Cloud Nothings/Sharon Van Etten

Young folks doing what young folks do.

ImageCloud Nothings: Attack on Memory
Eight songs—all of them fast, only one very long, and none particularly wordy, though the words do count. Twenty-year-old front man Dylan Baldi is a born yowler who likes his guitar more than his thesaurus, but when he screams his way through a dozen or so repetitions of  “I thought I would be more than this” on “Wasted Days,” you don’t have to suffer from his troublesome combination of entitlement and self-doubt to feel where he’s coming from (though it probably helps). His themes are tried and true for 20-year-olds with guitars—Why does time move so fast? Is tomorrow just a rumor? Is she really going out with him?—but no less cathartic for it. Baldi, recording with a full band for the first time and enlisting the engineering services of none other than Steve Albini, keeps the whole thing brutal and hooky. Play it loud. A-

ImageSharon Van Etten: Tramp
“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/You’re why I’ll need to leave,” this Brooklyn-via-Jersey girl sings on “Give Out,” the second song of her third album. You’d be right to call her a fatalist, and to hope she gets over it soon, but she knows herself well. Chances are you’ll recognize her too. Van Etten has hurt more than her share of really nice guys and fallen victim to at least as many bad ones, but when she catches herself playing the type—which she usually does—her plain, punishing asides tell her whole story. You might expect someone who drops lines like “I wanted to try for you/Wanted to die for you” to be tedious company, but Van Etten is in on the joke, and follows them up with a mocking “dramatic things.” Better still is “tell me I’m worth all the miles that you put on your car,” which I like to think is an actual text message she sent one of the nice guys. The offhandedness of her lyrics is a double-edged sword, and the basic strum-and-thump of the music can wear thin, but her ruefulness wins in the end. A plea from the closing track: “Tell me to leave the next time I’m in front of you.” She sounds restless enough to go places. B+

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January 2012 Consider/Avoid

If the waning weeks of 2011 hadn’t gotten away from me, I’d have given Girls and Los Campesinos! the full B+ reviews they deserve, but my reservations about both records (Girls made a theoretically admirable move towards Big Rock that led them to the actually tedious land of flutes and seven-minute run times, while the unsurprisingly clever Los Campesinos! album was unsurprising in most other ways too) were serious enough that I decided to include both in this final nod to the year just passed. Elsewhere, The Roots affirm my uneasy feelings about concept albums, but still turn in their second admirable record in as many years; Fallout Boy front man Patrick Stump uses his Micheal Jackson impression to put across some disarmingly articulate songs about pushing 30 in the lower reaches of the 99%; and Coldplay, a band I don’t hate on for sport, spends the better part of an hour in search of a memorable tune.

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (“Honey Bunny,” “Alex,”“Jamie Marie”)
A$AP Rocky: LiveLoveA$AP (“Wassup,” “Demons”)
Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire (“Dirty Rain,” “Lucky Now”)
Phonte: Charity Starts at Home (“Everything is Falling Down”)
The Black Keys: El Camino (“Little Black Submarines”)
Florence + the Machine: Ceremonials (“Shake It Out”)
Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto
The Weeknd: Thursday
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The Best Albums of 2011

I’m naming 12 albums to my best-of list because there are 12 months in a year, and so it feels like a less arbitrary number than 10, even if it is also less round. Plus, where good music is concerned, more is always more. If you put Wilco at the top of your ballot, you forgo any chance of seeming fashionable (especially if you put them ahead of Frank Ocean and Tune-Yards), but if you’re going to engage in any activity as subjective as ranking the albums released in a given year, listing them in rough order of how much solace you’ve taken in them is the only honest rubric. If you haven’t heard any of these records, I feel qualified in saying that there is one sort of solace or another to be found in each of them.

Happy New Year, everybody.

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Das Racist/Drake

To put a rather fine point on it, Drake and Das Racist provide clear examples of the broadening definition of rap: ethnically diverse, liberally educated (two of the three members of Das Racist met while they were undergrads at Wesleyan), and, in Drake’s case, confessional in a way that would have led to some name-calling a decade ago. If the Das Racist guys are smarter (they are), it would still take a fool to deny the pleasures of Drake, superficial though they may sometimes be.

Das Racist: Relax
“But are they serious?” That’s the question that’s dogged this Brooklyn crew since they dropped their exceptionally daffy—and brilliant—single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2008. The mix tapes they gave away two years later didn’t necessarily settle the debate, and the less-than-rapturous reaction to their first for-profit LP suggests many have stopped caring altogether, which is a serious shame. Indian-American Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) uses his first verse here to share the story of his immigrant parents: “1980, from Delhi to Queens/She had a pocket full of lint/He had a suitcase full of dreams/From holdin’ me to bagging groceries at the Pathmark/To scoldin’ me for drinking and driving in fast cars.“ Then a promise: “I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.” We’ve come a long way from the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Heems, along with fellow Indian-American Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dap) and Cuban/Italian/African-American Victor Vazquez (you can call him Kool A.D.), are so self-aware and hyper-informed about the world around them that their apparent contradictions and bone-deep irony sound like honest reactions to information overload. They say Urban Dictionary is for “demons with college degrees,” but make fun of themselves for all the poetry readings and jam band shows they attended at Wesleyan long before you have the chance to. Along they way, they prove that hip-hip is now as much the province of those places—not to mention the posh dorm room—as the ‘jects, even if they would roll their eyes at me for being so earnest about it. What does it all mean? Here’s a clue: “If you wanna be me, you can be me/…you can look all day but you still wouldn’t see me/If you wanna be you, you can do that too/And if you don’t, then I don’t really know what I can tell you.” Call it alternative rap or psychedelic rap or meta rap or whatever hashtag you can think of. Just don’t call it a joke. A-
Drake: Take Care
I don’t begrudge Drake’s apprehensions about his own fame and fortune; I wish I had his problems, but I’m sure I’d find plenty to gripe about in the life he leads. I don’t even get annoyed when he drunk dials his ex to tell her how all the sex he’s having is hurting his soul; that nakedly pathetic Hail Mary is the most compelling moment here. Drake—along with Kanye West—is a hip-hop confessor who pays little regard to the understood musical definition of ‘hip-hop.’ But because he’s not exactly what you’d call deep, his musical vision is a whole lot more engaging than his take on himself. The words ‘head case’ come up a lot in conversations about Drake, but his stakes are penny ante even before the Kanye comparisons he begs for and suffers by. The good news is that this follow-up to last year’s Thank Me Later never sounds anything less than terrific. Rapping and singing better than ever, getting the most out of his Toronto pal The Weeknd, and co-opting snippets of songs by Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and—on the title tracka Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron cover of an R&B classic made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Drake makes the case for the aficionado as artist. His taste and skill are plain throughout, and the beats he gets from his go-to producer Noah “40” Shebib are luxurious. I just wish all the above made as strong a case for Drake’s soul as it does his ear. B+
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