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Popless Week 36 & 37: The Home Stretch

After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.

Way back in January, when I was attending the Sundance Film Festival and trying to write Popless at the same time, I joked that by the time I arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I'd have run out of new things to say about my record collection, and would be reduced to speaking in code, thusly: "The Sea & Cake: Airy p-r; banana-berry smoothie; my 12th birthday party; see also Pw14, 26." So far, I haven't actually gotten that reductive, though the nature of this project is such that some weeks are richer than others. (The alphabet can be a cruel mistress.)

Anyway, looking back at what I wrote back in January, what stands out isn't my prediction about Popless' potential diminishing returns; it's that I guessed correctly that I'd be writing about The Sea And Cake this week. (And Sam Prekop and Shrimp Boat to boot!) Early in the year, I wasn't so sure I'd make it to the end of the alphabet by New Year's Eve. Now, thanks to a strong tailwind I caught over the summer (and despite a detrimental iPod crash last week), it's looking like I should be done by early December. After this week, I'm facing about two more weeks of "S," followed by a boatload of "T," but then it'll be headlong tumble to the finish line, with each remaining letter taking roughly a week or less.

And then what? Well, every epic needs an epilogue, and for Popless, the plan all along has been for me to re-immerse myself in new music after a year of deprivation. Starting next month, I'll begin picking up some of the best-reviewed, best-regarded LPs of 2008, and starting in November (which is about when I ran out of 2007 music last year), I'll begin listening. When I finish writing about my collection—whenever that may be—I'm planning to round out Popless with a short series of posts about how 2008's best music sounds in the context of everything else I've listened to this year.

Which means the floor is open to suggestions. Since this is a shorter-than-usual installment of the column—due to a weak stretch of the alphabet, preoccupation with a week of art films, and the aforementioned iPod trouble—I'm throwing open the comments section to ideas about what you all think are the unmissable records of 2008. Make your cases. I can't promise I'll get to everything—I do still have about 8000 songs worth of old stuff to listen to, after all—but if I can easily get my hands on a record, and it sounds like it's up my alley, I'll try to make time.

In the meantime, we're down to the wire here, folks, and it's getting pretty exciting. Will XTC, Yes and ZZ Top hold up? Please stay tuned.


Pieces Of The Puzzle

Sam Cooke

Years Of Operation 1950-64

Fits Between Marvin Gaye and William Bell

Personal Correspondence For a few years during my adolescence, I was convinced that "You Send Me" was the most perfect pop song ever recorded. I heard it for the first time in an early '80s HBO special about musicians who died young, and then heard it repeatedly on that same special. (I only ever got to see HBO when I spent summers with my dad, so I tended to abuse the privilege.) This was before the legal tangles over Cooke's back catalog had been (partially) straightened out, so his music wasn't really a staple of oldies stations—and even if it had been, classic rock radio has never been inclined to play songs by any black artist whose name doesn't rhyme with "Remy Pendricks." I can't really recall what struck me about "You Send Me" at the time, aside from Cooke's unaffected, sandpapery voice, which gave the sugary lyric a richer flavor without losing the sweet overtones. But as soon as the now-out-of-print nearly career-spanning compilation The Man And His Music came out, I bought it, and began developing a strong appreciation for the way Cooke could slide easily from simple spirituals to teen-dream reveries to something more universally inspirational. Nearly two decades later, I learned that The Man And His Music left out a significant aspect of Cooke's legacy: his skills as a live performer. It wasn't until I saw Michael Mann's Ali, with its extended opening montage set to a medley from Cooke's Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, that I realized Cooke belonged in the same league as James Brown, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen and Prince in terms of his ability to rework music and rouse a crowd. Cooke, like the other artists on that list, could draw spontaneously from the wide range of songs at his command, turning fragments of melody and lyrics—along with the response of the audience—into an entirely new composition, up-to-date and of-the-moment. Even now, recordings of Cooke in concert sound as fresh as tomorrow's news.

Enduring presence? Cooke was the first legendary R&B; performer I got into, shortly before delving into James Brown and Marvin Gaye, followed by fleeting obsessions with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and William Bell, among others. To some extent, I've jumped from soul man to soul man too quickly, because I didn't really give Cooke my full attention until recently. I still enjoy all those R&B; legends—especially Brown and Hayes—but Cooke's the one whose music continues to surprise me, revealing depths that his most popular lovesick teenager songs barely hint at.

Sam Prekop/The Sea And Cake/Shrimp Boat

Years Of Operation 1987-present

Fits Between Donald Fagen and Gilberto Gil

Personal Correspondence I'm not sure whether it was meant to be an insult or not, but back in 1995, my editor at the time tossed me a copy of The Sea And Cake's sophomore LP Nassau, and said, "This wasn't for me, but I think you'll like it." And he was right. Between the music—a fusion of Afro-Cuban, cool jazz, and a sort of numb European soul—and song titles like "A Man Who Never Sees a Pretty Girl That He Doesn't Love Her A Little," I felt on listening to Nassau at age 24 like I did when I read Catcher In The Rye at age 14, or when I heard the first Modern Lovers album at age 17. I felt like I'd found a thing that I understand. I later learned more about S&C; bandleader Sam Prekop—or I should say Dr. Sam Prekop, since he has a PhD in musicology—and discovered that to many of his early supporters, The Sea And Cake will always be the wimpy, sellout version of the superior Shrimp Boat, the outfit with which Prekop first explored the intersection of the then-burgeoning neo-cocktail and post-rock movements. I guess this may be a "first cut is the deepest" situation, because while I like Shrimp Boat, they've never sounded to me like anything other than a dry run for The Sea And Cake. I understand that Shrimp Boat was more raw-sounding and more wide-ranging in style, especially in comparison to The Sea And Cake's pervasive mellowness. But I also think that The Sea And Cake gets dismissed too easily as "light" and "soft." To me the beauty of the band is in the way its members—Prekop, drummer/engineer John McEntire, guitarist/keyboardist Archer Prewitt and bassist/electronics wiz Eric Claridge—play with such mathematical precision, while expressing their individual passion in short, unexpected eruptions. In their subtle explorations of sweet tension, The Sea And Cake have brought a touch of avant-garde to easy listening and vice versa.

Enduring presence? That said, I'll be the first to admit that Prekop's music can be a little boring. When in doubt, he tends to travel the easy route, running light percussion and muted horns under and around his whispery voice and delicate guitar. At the same time, Prekop has such a singularly dissolute presence, all shabby-suave and nonchalantly gifted. Listen casually, and his music hangs back against the wall, likeably undemanding. Listen close, and the album's elegant patterns become actively entrancing. Become a devotee, and the vibrations of Prekop's affectedly hushed vocals start to hang in the air like an unspoken thought.


Years Of Operation 1986-present (off and on)

Fits Between Guided By Voices and Bright Eyes

Personal Correspondence It took me a long time to get comfortable doing interviews with people whose work I respect or even love, and even now I always feel a little flutter before I pick up the phone to start talking with the talented. Usually I know within the first two minutes if I'm in for a tough grind (as has happened with some subjects who shall remain nameless) or if I'm going to get what I need with little fuss. I felt a giddy thrill from the start when talking with George Carlin, Peter Falk, and William Gibson, for example. And I felt the same with Lou Barlow, an exceptionally open and personable dude who freely answered my questions about Sebadoh's status as DIY and emo godfathers, as well as satisfying my curiosity about how a musician with such a spotty career makes money. (His answer: It ain't easy.) But what I especially liked about talking with Barlow back in '04 is that it spurred me to jump back into a catalog that I'd consumed hungrily back in the '90s and then had all but forgotten by the advent of the '00s. Some of my waning interest was Barlow's fault: too many side projects and too many samey-sounding ballads had started to make his music sound less effortlessly misty than sopping wet. But I was happy to hear that the core of the Sebadoh canon—III, Bakesale and Harmacy—still held up well, even with co-Sebadohs Eric Gaffney and Jason Lowenstein's monotone yelps and preoccupations with power chords. Writing about the fitful 1999 album The Sebadoh, I lamented,† "Inspiration is so fleeting for so many that we hold our breath every time one of the good ones slips even a little, and we weep when the best of them wander far away." Now, that seems way too dramatic for me. What's been winning about Barlow's work all along is that he treats recording the way some people treat keeping a journal or writing a letter. Waiting for his music to progress is a fools' errand. Sebadoh has been more about how Barlow progresses.

Enduring presence? And yet I still wish Sebadoh's best work weren't centralized in three spotty LPs released over a five-year period in the early '90s. Sebadoh are of the warts-and-all school that applauds endless releases of outtakes and B-sides, and that kind of value system can cripple an artist's judgment. The lo-fi types often settle for something that should've been honed more or thrown away. Though Sebadoh gradually amped-up the craftsmanship, Barlow's allegiance to playing off the cuff may have kept him from developing his songs to their fullest potential.


The Sex Pistols

Years Of Operation 1975-78

Fits Between MC5 and The Who

Personal Correspondence Some acts have names or reputations that suggest their music will be harder and more bone-rattling than it turns out to be, but the first time I heard The Sex Pistols, I was not disappointed. I often marvel at the sheer loudness of some of the acid rock that hit the charts in the late '60s, but not even The Jefferson Airplane was as abrasive as the entirety of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. It's just a rude, rabble-rousing record, still capable of shocking the complacent with its slaughtering of sacred cows and its persuasive nihilism. ("No future" indeed… lately those words seem more prescient than ever.) Due to the usual vicissitudes of access, I got Bollocks about a year after I was already immersed in The Clash, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Hüsker Dü and the Ramones, but I still wasn't prepared for the demonic cackle of "Anarchy In The U.K." or the brazen flippancy of "God Save The Queen." Man, is anyone?

Enduring presence? On the other hand, are The Sex Pistols the most influential band that almost nobody listens to a regular basis? Or is my perception out of whack? I probably spin Never Mind The Bollocks about once a year, but I'd be lying if I called it one of my favorite albums. I've always found Johnny Rotten/Lydon more compelling as a menacing trickster god than as a musician, an icon or a prophet of rage. There was a strong component of self-awareness in Lydon's work even back with the Pistols, evident in the song "EMI," which takes the piss out of the label that signed the band when they became tabloid sensations than dropped them quick when they became an outrage. I tend to find the art-project aspect of the Pistols a little distancing—even as I dig the way that Steve Jones' guitar is issuing its own, arguably more enduring polemics.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Years Of Operation 1998-present

Fits Between Tina Turner and James Brown

Personal Correspondence If I were to construct my ideal R&B; act, they'd look, sound and perform a lot like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, mixing slow-simmering gospel, horn-pumped funk, mellifluous afrobeat and electric rock fervor. Writing about the band's third album 100 Days, 100 Nights last year, I said that, "While the record doesn't pop with sweaty passion like The Dap-Kings' more memorable work, it retains a ripped-from-the-past vibe that's astonishing in and of itself. Songs like the title track, 'Tell Me' and 'Something's Changed' don't just sound like they've been lost in the Stax vault for the last 40 years; they sound like they've matured in isolation, developing flavors that didn't exist in 1967." Ultimately, that's what's impressed me most about the band's three LPs to date. There's usually a fair amount of diminishing returns with acts that try to accurately re-create the styles and sounds of the past, but The Dap-Kings mostly skirt that problem by era-hopping, making old music that's informed by the existence of what came afterward. The band also seems to understand that much of the excitement of old R&B; lies in those moments when the acts forgot about hitting the charts and instead played to their base: the fans in clubs, looking to drink and dance and maybe even do something wrong by sunup. These are the moments—usually captured live—when musicians seem to say, "Oh, it's just us here? Then let me tell you how it really is." Maybe it's because of the way word-of-mouth has spread on The Dap-Kings over the last 10 years, but something about the band just feels in the know.

Enduring presence? I should note though that while my ideal R&B; act would sound "a lot like" The Dap-Kings, they wouldn't necessarily be The Dap-Kings. I think that impresario Bosco Mann is arguably a more significant force in the new retro-soul wave than even Mark Ronson (who's hired The Dap-Kings more than a few times), but I still hesitate to crown him as a genius, because what he does remains so derivative. Without Jones—an R&B; vet providing instant credibility—The Dap-Kings wouldn't be half as special as they are. Or maybe the problem is that I've reached the stage in my life where I'm hesitant to wholly embrace the current, especially when it doesn't sound current. I like The Dap-Kings a tremendous lot; but I've got too much wait-and-see on my mind these days to really love them.

The Shins

Years Of Operation 1997-present

Fits Between Badfinger and The Chills

Personal Correspondence Oddly enough, success can be a bad break for some rock bands—especially those that prefer scribbling in the margins, unobtrusive and unassuming. The Shins' debut album Oh! Inverted World was a determinedly small-time affair, working in the muted watercolors of '60s British Invasion pop and Cosmic Americana. At the time, I thought it was a minor, enjoyable record with a fair number of highlights, though hardly a stop-the-presses moment in rock history. But The Shins' follow-up Chutes Too Narrow was bolder in style and songwriting, and about as good as modern rock albums get. It was confident, but never overbearing, and with the help of strong word of mouth—including an unexpected nod in an unexpected indie-film hit—The Shins quickly became the rare indie-rock band that nearly everyone seemed to love. Inevitably, the backlash kicked in, and in some ways The Shins' third album Wincing The Night Away felt like a reaction to the new waves of Shins fans and Shins haters that emerged around the mid-'00s. At least Wincing's not the kind of over-fussy, over-ambitious record that some minor league bands make when they break into the bigs, but it's still up-and-down, and closer to the "don't look at us too closely" mumble of Inverted than the strong foundation of Chutes. So I'm highly interested to see what The Shins have in store for album number four, which should determine whether they're going to an ongoing force in contemporary rock and pop, or whether they're going to be doggedly small-time, currying favor solely with the aficionados. It's hardly the most important question facing our culture today; but I'm still curious.

Enduring presence? Along with Death Cab For Cutie, Rogue Wave, The Arcade Fire and a few other bands, The Shins are largely responsible for taking the disparate elements of a decades' worth of indie-rock and streamlining it into something more like a style than an ethos. As a result, they've become representative of everything many rock fans hate about what's going on in the alt-rock scene now—in particular the ways that the music has become more mainstream-sounding and immediately palatable, and less adventurous. I understand those concerns, but I don't share them. There are plenty of adventurous bands around for people who prefer to explore. But to my ears, there aren't enough mainstream rock bands who can string memorable hooks together while layering a mood as anxious and queasy as a man in a waiting room. I'd love it if The Shins kept making albums that connect wide.


Stray Tracks

From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….

Sade, "By Your Side"

Seal, "Just Like You Said"

I've always had a fascination with these two British neo-soul stars, perhaps because I find their positioning in UK pop scene curious. From the start, Sade has been pitched as a singer from some kind of mythical golden age, and was part of a whole nostalgia movement back home. (See also: Cannibals, Fine Young.) But since all I know about England is what I've seen in movies and on TV, I've never been able to figure out where Sade's "type" was supposed to come from. I sure haven't seen a lot of black cabaret crooners in old David Lean films, I know that. Anyway, even if she's purely a fantasy figure, Sade Adu cuts a classy figure and sings beautifully, and her and her bandmates have shown a now-decade-plus-long knack for coming up with soft R&B; ballads that quickly become guilty pleasures. As for Seal, he seems to represent the opposite end of the scale from Sade: the future, not the past. I find that Seal's exotic dream-man routine wears thin over the course of a whole album—even a greatest hits album—but for a song at a time, his raspy bray and swirling background arrangements command attention, like a rainshower while the sun's still out.

The Sadies, "Song Of The Chief Musician, Pt. 2"

The Sadies' brief, productive indie-rock career had been respectable but mostly unspectacular until 2004's Favourite Colours, on which the Toronto twang engineers made a remarkable creative leap. On four earlier records, The Sadies dabbled in surf instrumentals, psychedelia and country-rock, looking to recreate the ghostly, stricken strain that runs through certain American pop, connecting Johnny Cash and The Byrds. To my ears though, the band came off a little mannered in the early going. On Favourite Colours, the band finally exhibited an integrated command of its genre obsessions, playing chilly-but-urgent music with a distinctly Sadies flavor. Bandleader brothers Dallas and Travis Good mumble in unison below tracks heavy on slide guitar and rapid jangle, as on "Song Of The Chief Musician," one of the many songs on the record that offers fragments of stories that borrow interchangeably from history and myth, just like the early work of fellow countrymen Neil Young and The Band.

Sagittarius, "Song To The Magic Frog (Will You Ever Know)"

Scud Mountain Boys, "Freight Of Fire"

Just as we said so long to Greg Cartwright a couple of weeks ago, now we bid farewell to two more Popless stalwarts: Curt Boettcher and Joe Pernice, whose various projects have appeared multiple times in Stray Tracks and Pieces Of The Puzzle. I don't have much more to say about either artist that I haven't written over and over again. Instead, I'll just admire Sagittarius' co-producer Gary Usher's high, precious vocals on the unfortunately titled "Song To The Magic Frog," and the way the song starts high and drifts even higher, looking for a comfortable cruising altitude. I'll also enjoy the way Pernice pushes past his the usual drippy, post-grad's idea of country on Scud Mountain Boys' "Freight Of Fire," and writes and sings the kind of '70s-style soft-rock classic that wouldn't sound out of place on a Poco record. (Or, okay, a Poco demo collection.)

Sam & Dave, "I Thank You"

Until I bought a Sam & Dave anthology two years ago, I had no idea that they originated this song—one that I'd always associated with ZZ Top—nor that Isaac Hayes wrote it with his Stax partner David Porter. In retrospect, it all makes perfect sense; there's a very Hayes-y vibe to "I Thank You"'s low groove and wry humor. So this one goes out, with eternal gratitude, to the late Black Moses. Rest in peace, you freaky Scientologist dude.

Sandie Shaw, "Girl Don't Come"

One of the great '60s British pop chanteuses, Shaw is probably best known stateside for her version of Bacharach & David's "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me," but I'm a bigger fan of this offbeat hit, in which Shaw sings in the second person, describing the nervousness and frustration of a guy who gets stood up by his date. Is Shaw that date? Why didn't she show up? Is "come" supposed to have two meanings? So many questions…

Santana, "Everybody's Everything"/"Winning"

Santana was one of those bands that was omnipresent when I was growing up, even though it was tough for me to figure out how they fit into the larger rock picture. I'd seen them in Woodstock, I'd ogled the cover to Abraxas, I'd grooved to "Black Magic Woman" on classic rock radio, and I'd scratched my head over '80s hits like "Winning" (which didn't really match any of the other Santana data points). Now I know more about Carlos Santana: how he blended Latin music with acid rock to generate a sound with more soul than much of what his hippie peers were cranking out, and how he extended his career by lending his name and his guitar to whatever generic radio-ready fare the producers and songwriters of different eras wanted to throw at him. In the end, there may not be a whole lot of separation between the various facets of Santana-dom. His name is a kind of imprimatur, representing professional polish and unthreatening exotica. You can either knock him for trending towards the bland, or praise him for bring a touch of skill and personality to the conventional.


Scissor Sisters, "Mary"

Disco-haters and genre purists found little joy in the late '70s, when the indestructible beat of Saturday Night Fever drove even rock icons like The Rolling Stones to make synthetic dance records. But those who prefer their music to be crossbred and even a little adulterated keep returning to that era, when ambitious prog types channeled their energies into Top 40 songs, and sensitive singer-songwriters learned to boogie. For all the critical sneers that still greet them, the hit songs of 1978 and 1979 are suffused with a relatable kind of uncertainty, as the anxieties over a messy decade and a changing pop landscape wormed their way into factory-made, radio-ready singles.

Thank goodness then that '70s addicts Scissor Sisters made themselves buzzworthy in the '00s with elaborate, gender-bending cabaret shows, otherwise some discerning types mightn't have accepted a pop ballad as glorious as the band's "Mary," with its watery electric piano and soft, syncopated drums. Melding a "friends forever" message with a sketch of heartbreak, "Mary" captures the sincere tone and ambiguous commitment of classic '70s lite-rock. It's both homage and explanation. Unfortunately, Scissor Sisters share another trait with the acts they idolize: they only crank out a handful of great songs per album, while the rest coast on busy arrangements and kitschy sexuality. But over the course of two LPs, Scissor Sisters have come up with a handful of songs in which the wrenching emotion of pop's most maligned era drips off, mingled with its potent cocaine sweat.

Scott Miller, "On A Roll"

Shooter Jennings, "Aviators"

Call these two the sons of Steve Earle (even though Shooter Jennings is literally the son of Waylon Jennings). Both of these cranky roots-rock troubadours sing songs about decaying Americana and shade easily from straight country to something much rowdier. Miller's the more overtly political of the two, though it's hard to discount the spot-on scene-setting of this line from Jennings' "Aviators:" "It's like that time I took you to Waffle House and you made me mad."

Scrawl, "Take A Swing"

Here's one from the glory years of indie-rock, when it was less a genre than an ideal, with room for bands that worked in darker, punkier, artier veins. Scrawl never really had strong enough songs to grow out of the indie realm, but in the early '90s there were few bands as skilled at evoking desperation and danger.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Hong Kong"

There's nothing quite like a truly unhinged old rock single to recalibrate your understanding of the Eisenhower era. This song was recorded in 1958, but sounds a little like Tom Waits fronting The Bad Seeds. Inadvertent cultural insensitivity aside, this one is just gloriously weird.

The Screaming Blue Messiahs, "Twin Cadillac Valentine"

Though the Messiahs' futurist rockabilly was partially dulled by the production standards of the mid-'80s, I think Bill Carter and company honestly tried to—and occasionally succeeded at—getting to that frenzied, sweaty place that wild men like Screamin' Jay Hawkins seemed to access so easily. The best SBM's songs were incantatory, with Carter spitting into the microphone like a street corner preacher, in storming call-and-response anthems that tied together Jesus, cars, murder, TV, American capitalism, and how much fun betraying your principles can be.

Screaming Trees, "Nearly Lost You"

While the majority of the early grunge acts proved disappointing, Screaming Trees were one of the few that consistently worked wonders with the sound, adding a moody psychedelic aspect, and wedding it to actual songs, not just tuneless rumble. Plus, Mark Lanegan's voice is one of the best of a surprisingly strong lot in the Seattle scene: deep and warbly, with a texture that's like velvet interlaced with Velcro.

Seals & Crofts, "Summer Breeze"

I considered posting "Unborn Child," Seals & Crofts' career-killing pro-life ballad, but its lost some of its kitsch appeal over the past couple of weeks, given the suddenly shifting political tides. Instead, here's the duo's biggest hit, a song that always catches me by surprise with its unconventional structure and undertones of melancholy. Fun fact: For years, I heard the line "not a care in the world" as "I can not go on," which completely changes the meaning of the song. I didn't even think about the implications of my version until one day I was singing along to "Summer Breeze" on the radio and realized how hilariously awful my line sounded in context.

Self, "Pattycake"

In the liner notes to Self's 2000 album Gizmodgery, the Tennessee-born studio rats took special care to thank late-80s college rock staples Pianosaurus. Why the nod? Because Pianosaurus was the first to do what Self set out to do on Gizmodgery: write, perform, and record pop songs using nothing but toy instruments. It was an exercise that proved rewarding both for Self frontman Matt Mahaffey and his fans, as Gizmodgery proceeded through 12 tracks of danceable pop spiked with so much techno-clank that the original conceit of tinny childlike instrumentation wasn't immediately noticeable. But some songs do seem to have directly resulted from their unusual origins. Perhaps the most memorable track on the album is "Pattycake," a Prince-like ditty highlighted by Mahaffey's groovy falsetto, rhythmic hand-clapping and a catchy children's rhyme over the chorus. It's a toy-generated song about playing with toys.

Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, "Scarborough Fair"

Does this easy-listening cover of an easy-listening song push so far through the looking-glass that it transforms from cheese back into art? Since I'm an avowed fan of The Sea And Cake, you can probably guess my stance on this question. I find this recording strangely progressive, and sort of beautiful.

Seth Kaufman, "Black Biscuit"

Seth Kauffman's amazing 2006 album Ting sounds for all the world like a sampler drawn from the Numero Group archives, bringing together the label's regional R&B; collections, island-hopping exotica, and lost roots records. But it's actually the work of one North Carolina music theorist who's apparently run out of junk shops to rummage through for funky old 45s, and has decided to make tomorrow's curios today.

The Shazam, "Fallin' All Around Me"

The Nashville guitar-pop trio broke out of their local club circuit with Godspeed The Shazam, a lively piece of power-pop that drew its inspiration from the gutty style of late '60s genre progenitors The Move rather than the more pensive and pretty version offered by the likes of Fountains Of Wayne. The album made The Shazam cult sensations in the U.K., where the rock press, appreciative audiences, and scene demigods Paul Weller and the Gallagher brothers anointed the band the legitimate heirs to their pet sound. But back home, The Shazam's retro side got them lumped in with the neo-garage movement (when it was noticed at all). Bandleader Hans Rotenberry and producer Brad Jones responded by accentuating the raw on their follow-up LP Tomorrow The World, but the beat-it-until-it's-bloody technique didn't fool anyone, especially given Rotenberry's continued affection for soar and sparkle. Note the fetching acoustic guitar overture to the rollicking and hopelessly hooky "Fallin' All Around Me," and its overall '70s-AM-radio-friendly approach. The band's gleaming melodies and Rotenberry's full-throated bellows indicate that there's more of the arena about them than the garage.

Sheriff & The Ravels, "Shombalor"

Everytime I hear someone include doo-wop among the list of genres they can't abide (usually alongside country and disco), I wonder if they've heard this frenetic doo-wop side, in which the voices compete with drums and piano and saxophone for which can go the most beat crazy.

The Shoes, "Like I Told You"

Proving that every generation has their own power-pop critics' darling that never breaks wide despite their obvious awesomeness, here are The Shoes, with a rare cut from 1978, driven by big riffs, jangly fills, and a rhythm that rolls like a ahead like a Greyhound bus.

Sidney Bechet & His New Orleans Feetwarmers, "Preachin' Blues"

When this song begins, it sounds like a fairly standard example of original boogie-woogie, and the horn comes in, adding a Dixieland jazz feel, followed by a loose, funny jump-jive vocal. Recorded in 1939, "Preachin' Blues" is like a compendium of the styles that would later become rock 'n' roll.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik, "Love Missile F1-11"

This British art-pop act garnered a lot of attention in the mid-'80s when they declared themselves to be commercial entity first and foremost, and announced a plan to sell advertising on their debut album. For all their blatant sell-out moves though, I find it endearing that their first and biggest hit is essentially a rip-off of Suicide. A sound that almost no one would buy a decade earlier became popular when packaged properly.

Sigur Ros, "Saeglopur"

Everything I like about Sigur Ros is present in this song: the music-box chimes, the moony vocals, the boom and billow, and the abrupt changes from epic to intimate. I wish Sigur Ros had more songs as well-organized and dynamic as this one, instead of filling their records with so many pleasantly atmospheric mood-setters. So many Sigur Ros tracks are like establishing shots; "Saeglopur" is like an entire movie, in just under eight minutes.


Regrettably unremarked upon: Sahara Hotnights, Saint Etienne, Salt-N-Pepa, Sam Phillips, Sam Roberts, The Sames, Sarah Lee Guthrie, The Scientists, Scott Walker, Scritti Politti, The Secret Machines, The Selecter, Serge Gainsbourg, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, Shapes And Sizes, Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow and Shuggie Otis

Also listened to: S.J. Tucker, Sabrosa Purr, Sadaharu, Saddlesong, The Safes, The Sails, The Saints, Salako, Salaryman, Salim Nourallah, The Sallie Martin Singers, Sally Shapiro, Sally Timms, Salomé De Bahia, Salt Water Taffy, Salvatore, Sam Baker, Sam Baylor, Sam Bush, Sam Dees, Sam Taylor, Sammy Johns, San Francisco T.K.O.'s, Sandra King, Sandra McCracken, The Sands, Santa Esmeralda, Saosin, Sara Evans, Sarah Bettens, Sarah Connor, Sarah McLachlan, Sarah Pierce, Satellite Party, Saturna, Saturday Looks Good To Me, Save Ferris, Saves The Day, Saxon Shore, Say Hi To Your Mom, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Scatman Crothers, The Scattered Pages, The Scenic Vermont, Schiller Street Gang, Schonherz & Scott, The Schoolyard Heroes, Schooner, Scissors For Lefty, Scotch Greens, The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, Scott Coussu, Scott Fisher & 1 A.M. Approach, Scott H. Biram, Scotty, Scout Niblett, The Screamin' Sirens, Screeching Weasel, Sea Ray, Sea Wolf, Sean Lennon, Seaweed, Second Saturday, Secret Primper, Seether, Seger Ellis, Self Righteous Brothers, Semiautomatic, Semisweet, The Sems, Seth Tiven, Seu Jorge, Seven Degrees From Center, Seven Storey Mountain, Sex Gang Children, Sexton Blake, Seymores, Shaka Zulu Overdrive, Shakeyface, Shane Bartell, Shark Quest, Shaun Cassidy, Shawn Camp, Shawn Cummings, Shawn Fogel, Shawn Rudiman, She's Spanish I'm American, Shearwater, Shelley Short, Shimmer, Shiner, Shiner Massive, Shirley & Lee, Shitdisco, Shocking Blue, Shotgun Honeymoon, Shout Out Louds, Sick Bees, Sick Of It All, Sick Puppies and Signalmen


Next week: From The Silos to Son Volt, plus a few words on drummers