Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Maybe Dylan is God, After All...

Even though it is still sinking in, there seems no doubt after early listens that Bob Dylan's Modern Times continues the remarkable renaissance which began with 1997's Time Out of Mind. As John Lennon once said, what Dylan says matters less than how he says it, and his voice, which deserted him for so long, remains epochal on this recording; the music remains as vital as it was 40 years ago (!), when Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde set new standards for what could be accomplished in rock music.

Dylan is now heading into uncharted territory. For nearly twenty years, following Blood on the Tracks, his inspiration seemed sporadic; his voice seemed shot. That is not to say that he didn't make good music during this period; he did - cuts like "Every Grain of Sand," "Blind Willie McTell," and "Most of the Time" stand alongside his classics without shame - but rather, that he was either unable or unwilling to sustain such excellence across a single album recording. What is left today are a lot of albums that may be good by most standards, but can only be considered mediocre (or worse) when compared to what came before it in the Dylan pantheon.

Things began to change when Dylan truly went back to his roots in the early 1990s with two acoustic albums that were comprised entirely of folk songs that he just as easily could have recorded 30 years before. Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong were great albums, but the question remained whether Dylan had it in himself to write songs that could stand against the tracks on his mid-1960s masterworks. He proved that he could, and now he has done it for three consecutive albums. It's a bit scary, if not awe-inspiring.

More to come...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Rally Around Pluto!

One can always count on the California Legislature for a barrel of laughs during the final week of session, which ends at midnight on August 31. With approximately 800 bills to move through the two houses before the deadline, two members found time to introduce this fine piece of legislation last Thursday:

Introduced by Assembly Members Richman and Canciamilla
August 24, 2006

Relative to Pluto's planetary status.

WHEREAS, Recent astronomical discoveries, including Pluto's oblong orbit and the sighting of a slightly larger Kuiper Belt object, have led astronomers to question the planetary status of Pluto; and

WHEREAS, The mean-spirited International Astronomical Union decided on August 24, 2006, to disrespect Pluto by stripping Pluto of its planetary status and reclassifying it as a lowly dwarf planet; and

WHEREAS, Pluto was discovered in 1930 by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and this discovery resulted in millions of Californians being taught that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system; and

WHEREAS, Pluto, named after the Roman God of the underworld and affectionately sharing the name of California's most famous animated dog, has a special connection to California history and culture; and

WHEREAS, Downgrading Pluto's status will cause psychological harm to some Californians who question their place in the universe and worry about the instability of universal constants; and

WHEREAS, The deletion of Pluto as a planet renders millions of text books, museum displays, and children's refrigerator art projects obsolete, and represents a substantial unfunded mandate that must be paid by dwindling Proposition 98 education funds, thereby harming California's children and widening its budget deficits; and

WHEREAS, The deletion of Pluto as a planet is a hasty, ill-considered scientific heresy similar to questioning the Copernican theory, drawing maps of a round world, and proving the existence of the time and space continuum; and

WHEREAS, The downgrading of Pluto reduces the number of planets available for legislative leaders to hide redistricting legislation and other inconvenient political reform measures; and

WHEREAS, The California Legislature, in the closing days of the 2005-06 session, has been considering few matters important to the future of California, and the status of Pluto takes precedence and is worthy of this body's immediate attention; now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, That the Assembly hereby condemns the International Astronomical Union's decision to strip Pluto of its planetary status for its tremendous impact on the people of California and the state's long term fiscal health; and be it further

Resolved, That the Assembly Clerk shall send a copy of the resolution to the International Astronomical Union and to any Californian who, believing that his or her legislator is addressing the problems that threaten the future of the Golden State, requests a copy of the resolution.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

There are no superlatives adequate to describe what Tiger Woods has accomplished in the last six weeks. Four consecutive victories, including two major championships. Yet another victory in a World Golf Championship event. Dominating victories at Hoylake and at Medinah, two courses that are as different as it is possible for a golf course to be.

By his own admission, Tiger was unprepared for this year's U.S. Open, rusty after weeks away from the tour to mourn the loss of his father. After missing the cut there, he obviously set out to fine tune his game, and the results speak for themselves. Not since 2000 has he appeared this dominant. At Hoylake, he proved that he is smarter and more versatile than anyone else on the tour, shelving the driver and showing the world how to navigate a links course. At Medinah and this week at Firestone, he showed with ease how to win on a classic narrow tree-lined fairway parkland course.

Some people have pooh-poohed the idea that it is time to begin calling Tiger the best ever, countering that Jack Nicklaus won his 18 majors against superior competition - where are Tiger's Arnold Palmer, or Lee Trevino, or Gary Player, or even Johnny Miller, they say? Make no mistake about it - they're out there. It's just that Tiger is so much better than everyone else, when he is on his game, he is unbeatable - period. Not even Jack Nicklaus could make that claim, and Nicklaus was always my favorite golfer when I was growing up.

It's really up to Tiger at this point. He and his wife could decide to raise a family; he could decide to cut down on appearances; he could get bored with winning all the time (seems doubtful, but you never know). But, barring injury, his quest to overtake Jack as the player with the most major championship victories is a foregone conclusion. It's just a matter of time.

Enjoy the ride, folks. Not everyone can say that they got to watch the greatest ever, in their prime.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Desert Island Books

Three years ago, I worked on a project I called "The Desert Island Book Project," asking a group of friends and colleagues to identify the five books that they would take with them to a desert island, and write a paragraph or two explaining why. The response was amazing; I heard back from 40 people and many of them wrote much more than just a paragraph or two. As for myself, I didn't limit myself to five; and I wrote whatever came to mind, whether it be five lines, five paragraphs, or more. From time to time, I'll post some of my selections here.

L.A. Confidential
by James Ellroy

The third volume in the so-called “L.A. Quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), L.A. Confidential is the critical link in Ellroy’s career between the mostly conventional writing style he employed in his previous novels and the rapid-fire, staccato, free jazz-like style that has predominated in subsequent works. The book tells the tale of three deeply flawed members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s: Ed Exley, the crusader who believes in “absolute justice” but whose reputation and career are based on a lie; Bud White, the defender of abused women whose brutally vicious methods represent everything that Exley finds abhorrent in the LAPD; and Jack Vincennes, the star-struck thrill-seeker who rarely lets morals stand in the way of a good bust.

Over the span of the decade which provides the backdrop for the book, the three men’s careers become intertwined through a maze of seemingly unrelated characters, including the charismatic but sociopathic police Captain Dudley Smith; the proverbial “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” Lynn Bracken (who understands Exley, White and Vincennes better than they understand themselves); various “real-life” characters such as Bill Parker, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato; and seemingly unrelated events including the beheading of a child star by a serial killer that occurred some twenty years earlier; the construction of the L.A. network of freeways; and the development of a Disney-like theme park, a major sub-plot that was dropped from the terrific film adaptation, for reasons that become obvious by the end of the novel. The single event around which all of the plot revolves is the Nite Owl Massacre, an unexplained shoot-out in an all-night café that results in the deaths of six people and alters the course of the lives of all the book’s major characters.

It is when the plot threads begin to converge – and when Exley, White, and Vincennes come to realize that only through working together to solve the Nite Owl case can “absolute justice” be served – that the novel soars to heights that have been reached by few works in the genre. In the end each pays a price for that justice; in this book redemption – if one can call it that – does not come easy.

The dialogue throughout is brilliant and memorable (and as with all Ellroy novels, profane), and pulls off the neat trick of sounding realistic at the same time it is larger-than-life and crackling with intensity: examples include Bud White’s initial encounter with the mysterious Pierce Patchett; the conversations between Exley and his father, all of which are spoken in a nearly impenetrable code; nearly every scene in which Lynn Bracken plays a role; Exley’s breathless interrogations of the initial Nite Owl Suspects; the moment when Exley reveals to Vincennes what he knows of Jack’s past secrets – and what it means for Jack’s future; and the wonderful scene near the novel’s end when Exley and White realize at long last that despite their differences in methods and temperament, they are really just flip sides of the same coin.

My favorite piece of dialogue in the book occurs when Exley interrogates a somewhat unwilling Lynn Bracken about her knowledge of what happened on the night of the Nite Owl. In this exchange, Ellroy leaves no doubt that the two, despite their differences in position and stature, are on absolutely equal footing as protagonists. After some initial sparring, Exley leaves the room to gather his thoughts and re-enters shortly thereafter:

“You again?”

“That’s right.”

“Don’t you have to charge me or release me?”

“Not for another sixty-eight hours.”

“Aren’t you violating my constitutional rights?”

“Constitutional rights have been waived for this one.”

“Constitutional rights have been waived for this one?” Are you kidding me? In 32 years of reading and watching mysteries, thrillers, and detective procedurals, I don’t think I’ve ever come across an interview line as good as that one.

But it gets better. Wanting the truth from a witness that he assumes will not be cooperative, Exley has Bracken shot up, against her will, with sodium pentothal. Expecting such a move, Bracken has prepared by having a counter-dose administered prior to the interview.

“You don’t even feel the dosage, do you?”

“I feel like I’ve had four martinis, and four martinis just make me that much more lucid.”

About this time is when you pause and wonder, why can’t I write this well?

There’s two more priceless exchanges during the course of the interview, but unfortunately they cannot be shared without revealing too much of the plot.

Since the release of the novel in 1990, Ellroy has become somewhat famous, and his writing has probably gotten “better.” But it is unlikely his work will again reach the heights that he achieved with L.A. Confidential.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why I Saved the 1987 Edition of Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion

For the review of Red Sonja, of course.

"First, she [Sonja] must learn the ways of the sword from the Grandmaster, a character who looks like a cross between Fu Manchu and Clara Peller (the "Where's the beef?" lady). He tells her, "To be a great need a great sword." She nods intently, and selects one from the stock he has on hand. Then she rides out of the ampitheater by passing beneath a statue of the Buddha, who was squatting in such a familiar position that I instinctively knew why he looked so contented. "

"Along the way, Red Sonja meets Kalidor, a muscular swordsman with a great sword. They encounter a little emperor and his valet, who does not carry a great sword but does have several small knives..."

"Kalidor loves Red Sonja. He wants to kiss her. She rebuffs his advance, and says, "I have vowed to love no man who cannot defeat me in battle." This is a tough one for Kalidor. He knits his brow and puzzles it out. "But...if I defeat you," he says, "then you will be dead...and then how will I love you?" His logic is irrefutable, but they fight anyway."

"Red Sonja is one of the ranking goofy movies of our time...The exact time frame of the story is a little hard to figure out, but using the evidence on the screen, I have been able to narrow it down to the epoch between the rise of Buddhism and the year brass brassieres went out of style."

I've never seen the movie, because I've always been afraid that to do so would ruin the review. Of course, it also helps that Kalidor is now the governor of California.

Great Random Moments in Rock History

Number One:
PJ Harvey on the Tonight Show

I can't pinpoint the exact date, but it was sometime in the early 1990s, probably 92-93.

Polly Jean performed solo that night, and apparently the NBC standards bureau (censors) hadn't taken too close a look at the lyrics of the song she sang, "Rid of Me." She looked great on stage, and began the song, slowly and quietly.

Tie yourself to me
No one else, no
You're not rid of me
You're not rid of me

One can just imagine Jay sitting at this desk, probably thinking, "oh, a breakup song." The danger in her voice now begins to become apparent, and the guitar gets a little louder.

Night and day I breathe
Hah hah ay hey
You're not rid of me
Yeah you're not rid of me
I beg you my darling
Don't leave me
I'm hurting

And then the bridge, and you're thinking that she can't possibly sing those lines on television, but sure enough, and in the harshest falsetto voice you're ever going to hear.

Lick my legs and I'm on fire
Lick my legs and I'm desire

If Jay is paying attention, it's probably becoming clear to him that the protagonist of this song is not a happy woman. The next verse makes clear just how unhappy.

I'll tie your legs
Keep you against my chest
Oh you're not rid of me
Yeah you're not rid of me
I'll make you lick my injuries
I'm gonna twist your head off, see
Till you say don't you wish you never never met her

Which is probably what Jay was thinking about this time. But, ever the gentleman, there is a brief interview, and the shell-shocked look on Jay's face makes it obvious that by now he's thinking, "what can I possibly ask this woman?"

Amazingly enough, PJ is invited back. But nothing will ever top this, her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Boston, Day 3

At this point I almost feel bad about our visit, it having come just as the Red Sox were enduring the Boston Massacre II. On my way down to the hotel business center this evening to print out boarding passes for the return home tomorrow, I overheard some Yankees fans in the bar who were pushing it pretty hard...if I hear sirens in the middle of the night, I'll know why.

After a long day of conferencing, we capped off the day with a Boston Harbor cruise that was hosted by one of the conference sponsors. The weather cooperated; it's hard to imagine that it could have been any nicer. The views were spectacular, and the mixture of old and new in the skyline is hard to describe. Awesome sounds goofy, but it's the only word that comes to mind.

Tomorrow...nine hours of flying...ugh.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

More From Boston

Notes from a Sunday in Boston:

- Three from our California contingent are staying at the Seaport Hotel, which is a fair distance from many of the historic areas of Boston, but within walking distance of the Convention & Exhibition Center. Unfortunately that wasn't much comfort this morning, when during our walk we were greeted with a cloudburst. I'm certain that I'll be reminded of my "oh, it's just drizzling - let's commune with nature" comment for some time to come. It's a great hotel, as well as the first one I've ever stayed at that bills itself as a "service inclusive, no-tip hotel." I'm not sure if that is a euphemism for "non-union," or if it means that they actually pay their staff a little more than what is considered "normal."

- One of the featured speakers at the conference this afternoon was Anthony Bourdain, who was absolutely wonderful. Having worked at a restaurant in a previous life, I can relate to many of his experiences, especially his account of the "us vs. them" mentality with respect to customers (even favored ones) that is typically adopted by restaurant staff as, if nothing else, a survival mechanism. Bourdain's presentation was billed as "Leadership Lessons From The Kitchen," and while his approach might not translate to other professions, it's probably equally likely that it would work just as well as many, more "academic" recommendations.

- We had dinner at Jasper White's Summer Shack in Back Bay, billed as "the place where rabid Red Sox fans and Boston Symphony patrons rub elbows." We didn't see any of the latter this evening, but plenty of folks wearing Red Sox memorabilia, and one anti-Johnny Damon t-shirt that I was able to see. Well worth the cab fare across town.

- On the subject of cabs, although I'm not an every-week traveler, I have to say that Boston cab drivers are probably the least friendly and helpful that I've encountered. At the very least, they run a distant third to San Francisco and Chicago. This evening, we were treated to a lesson on God, his son, and atonement on the CD player. We probably should have just asked him to turn it off, but at that point, in the middle of a driving rainstorm (which literally came out of nowhere), we could barely see out the window and didn't want to cause any unnecessary trouble. We made it, so I suppose we can't complain.

Aside from that admittedly minor blip on the radar screen, Boston has been great. The conference has been terrific, but I wish we had more time to explore the city.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Blogging from Boston

A contingent of folks from where I work is in Boston for four days to attend the annual ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) Conference. It's the first trip there for most of us, and while we haven't brought the Red Sox much luck, it's been a memorable trip thus far.

- Since the conference did not begin until mid-afternoon today, we were able to spend the morning at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. My first memory is that of the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, and I've always found Kennedy and his nemesis, Richard Nixon, to be the most fascinating American political figures of my lifetime. The museum is a magnificent and moving experience, and does a wonderful job of conveying both the optimism of those years as well as the charsima and grace of the Kennedy Administration. Currently and through September 2007, the tour begins with an exhibit on the President's visit to Ireland in June 1963, probably the most emotional trip of his presidency, and it is a great way to begin. Other highlights include multimedia presentations on the debates with Nixon, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination. Memorable, and moving.

- A walk through the Granary Burying Ground, resting place of Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, among others.

- A stroll through Boston Common, and the Public Garden, including the Swan Boats and the statue of George Washington.

- An opening night reception at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, currently featuring an exhibition on American painters who spent significant amounts of time in Paris, including Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. The conference was able to pull off an impressive logistical feat, managing to transport a couple of thousand folks from hotels all over the city to and from the museum. I'm sure the museum staff was thrilled to have a bunch of folks wandering around after having had a couple (or more) drinks, but everyone appeared to be on their best behavior.

All in all, a great day.

(revised 8/20)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Overheard in Honolulu

On our family vacation this year to Hawaii, we were walking down the main drag at Waikiki Beach, when we overheard the following from a dude (the only word that will suffice) talking on his cell phone, quite loudly:

"Dude, I've got more money than your brother. Heck, I've got more money than Davy Crockett!"

Okay...whatever, dude.

Cal Ranked #8 By SI

As Dick Enberg would say, Oh my. The Cal football renaissance which began with the hiring of Jeff Tedford in 2001 has, for the first time, resulted in a pre-season Top Ten ranking by a major sports publication. Up until now, it's all been gravy - the steady improvement, the four consecutive wins over Stanford, the increased national exposure, the major upset of USC in 2003. Now, the Bears can take no one by surprise. Even in 2004, when they finished 10-1 and just missed being pegged for a BCS bowl, they began the season in the high teens and snuck up on a lot of folks.

Those days are over. The Old Blues, as they call the alumni who get to sit in the nice (shady) seats, have expectations. And nothing short of a Rose Bowl berth will meet those expectations. For the first time in many, many years, it's nervous time for Cal football.

It's a good feeling.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dave Marsh on Elvis

“Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s perceptions. This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men made the only maps we can trust.”

- Elvis

Greil Marcus on Elvis

“...if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.”

- Mystery Train

Phil Spector on Elvis

The full Phil Spector quote:

“You have no idea how great he is, really you don’t. You have no comprehension - it’s absolutely impossible. I can’t tell you why he’s so great, but he is. He’s sensational.”

Lester Bangs on Elvis

The concluding paragraph of Lester Bangs' famous obituary:

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Once and Future King

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment I heard that Elvis died. At the time, I wasn’t much of a fan, beyond what I’d heard on the radio – “Burning Love,” “Suspicious Minds,” and a few of the early tunes on oldies stations. But something must have resonated that day, because the moment sticks in my mind as clear as if it were yesterday – driving to work in the middle of the afternoon for the evening shift at McDonald’s, stopping to get gas on the way and the attendant coming out (this was right around the time you started having to pump your own gas, although they still cleaned the windows and checked the tires), saying “Man, did you hear? Elvis died!” It was a shock, even though I remember having seen a picture of him in a recent issue of Rolling Stone where he looked to be tipping the scales at close to 300. After getting home from work that night, I also remember The Tonight Show being delayed for a special on Elvis, and Dave Marsh, the great rock critic, talking about how he always expected that Elvis would be something he could share with his children – he wasn’t just important musically; he had become a part of the fabric of American life.

I didn’t run out and immediately buy the Elvis catalog (in fact, that year I would start to become obsessed with another Elvis – Elvis Costello), but over the years began to add bits and pieces to my collection, as well as view a lot of footage - in films like “This is Elvis” and the re-release of the famous 1968 comeback special - that made it clear that when Elvis was on his game, there was a reason he was called “the King.” Phil Spector was once quoted as saying that it was impossible to comprehend how good Elvis was, and when you saw him singing “One Night” during the comeback special, remembering at long last that it was supposed to be “one night of sin” instead of “one night with you,” utterly resplendent in black leather, surrounded by his true friends, the musicians, you could understand what he was talking about. It didn’t get any better than Elvis then, and it will never get any better than Elvis.

And yet, 29 years later, Elvis still has the ability to surprise. A couple of months ago I was sitting up late and Turner Classic Movies was showing “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” which was filmed just as he was embarking on his first post-comeback Vegas tour, in 1970. In other words, the beginning of the perfect saga of decline that would end seven years later, with his death. But in 1970 the rot had not yet set in, and it was evident as he was rehearsing with his band that the fire was hot, and that he couldn’t wait to get on stage. So there he was, ripping into “That’s All Right, Mama,” when suddenly out of nowhere came a quick couple of verses of something that sounded awfully familiar, and recognition finally kicked in - The Beatles’ “Get Back.”

Think about it – maybe it was just me, but I always thought the conventional wisdom was that Elvis detested The Beatles, didn’t respect them, yadda yadda yadda… Well, watch this scene, take a look at the look on Elvis’ face, and then tell me that Elvis didn’t enjoy what The Beatles were doing. There may have been an element of “let me show you boys from Liverpool how it’s done,” but it was still an amazing moment.

As Lester Bangs said, we will never again agree on anything as we did on Elvis. And as Neil Young sang on his last album, he was the king.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Protest 101

From the press release section of The Capitol Morning Report, published weekdays in Sacramento:

"Law student Victor Copeland begins five-hour hunger strike, first of three on remaining Mondays while Legislature in session, supports Asm. Loni Hancock's AJR 36 urging
Governor to withdraw CA National guard troops from Iraq. "

I'm just guessing, but I don't think that a five-hour hunger strike is going to qualify Mr. Copeland for the Civil Disobedience Hall of Fame.

Music 2006: Around the Far Turn

With more than half the year gone, it's time to assess the music of 2006. It would be foolhardy to try and assign numerical rankings, but this is what has grabbed my interest so far.

- "Black Cadillac," Rosanne Cash. At first blush, I compared it to "Blonde on Blonde" and "Exile on Main Street." Only time will tell if it has the lasting impact of those two classics, but after six months I see no reason to think that it won't. The brilliance is evident early, from the use of the 'Ring of Fire'-style horns in the title track. The use of two producers can sometimes be a bad sign, but Bill Bottrell's work provides a depth to the music that sometimes has been lacking in the past, and longtime producer (and husband) John Leventhal matches it by not "prettying up" the songs for once. Simple, spare arrangements and heartfelt, moving lyrics coupled with Rosanne's strongest singing ever make this her best album, and the best album of the year to date.

- "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," Bruce Springsteen. It will come as no shock to my friends that I'm picking a Springsteen album as one of the best of the year. While this work doesn't break any new ground, I defy anyone to resist the sheer joy in the singing and the musicianship. This is the sound of people having fun, and making good, if not great art in the process.

- "Living With War," Neil Young. Whether you agree or not with the politics, Young is to be saluted for his courage in taking a stand, regardless of what one thinks of the case that he's making. In the end, the music wins out: his place in the Hall of Fame may be secure, but that hasn't kept him from being our most inconsistent great artist. Here, the speed of the recording (the whole thing was made in one weekend) jump-starts his creative juices, and when Neil gets mad about something (see "Freedom," perhaps his best album ever), watch out. And yes, the guitars crackle.

- "3121," Prince. The man can obviously make great music in his sleep. He may never again match the consistency of "Dirty Mind," "Purple Rain," or "Sign 'O The Times," but the best parts of this album are as brilliant as anything he's ever accomplished. His magnificent cameo on the finale of "American Idol" proved that he's got more talent in his little finger than most of the finalists, combined. Extended grooves like "Lolita," "Love," "Fury," and "Get on the Boat" can easily stand alongside their historical peers from Sly, JB, and Jimi. And who would have thought, 25 long years ago, that he would seem relatively normal in comparison to Michael Jackson?

- "Taking the Long Way," Dixie Chicks. I'm not sure they're as brave as they make themselves out to be (see Neil Young for that), but the best parts of this album transcend their country-pop rock origins with ease. Falls into a bit of the “more is less” trap (artists, just because you can fit 16 tracks onto a CD doesn’t mean that you should), but at its best it really does justify the comparisons with “Rumours”-era Fleetwood Mac.

Subjects For Further Research

Paul Simon’s “Surprise.” Easily his best album since “Graceland,” but not the easiest album to get into. I’m not sure what Brian Eno brings to the project in terms of musicianship (he’s credited on most tracks with “electronics”), but based on interviews I’ve read, the most important thing he did was jolt Simon out of his comfort zone – which in recent years had resulted in some pretty dull, boring albums.

“Pearl Jam.” Another nice comeback. I’m not sure that Eddie Vedder is as important as he seems to think he is, but his voice has always been one of the great instruments in modern day rock. “World Wide Suicide” is among their best tracks ever, and the album is consistently good. I haven’t quite decided how good, but it’s far more listenable than recent efforts.

“All the Roadrunning,” Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. Very good, and it’s nice to hear Emmylou singing again after having resorted to breathing heavily (albeit prettily) on her last couple of records.

The Strokes’ “First Impressions of Earth.” This one doesn’t really break any new ground. After their first album I thought they had a chance to become the perfect meld of Talking Heads and The Ramones, but now I’m not so sure.

Donald Fagen’s “Morph the Cat.” Not quite as sharp as the two most recent Steely Dan albums, but if you’re a Dan fan, you’ll find this to be a fine addition to the collection. On his own, Fagen tends to stretch things out a bit and get jazzier, but a couple of the cuts on this album are just a bit too long.

“Rabbit Fur Coat,” Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. Eccentric country-rock, with an extraordinary title track that sets new standards for strangeness. I think it’s about her mother who may have been a drug addict and then either stole a coat or had it stolen from her, and then lived with her daughter pretending that they were a couple…I’m probably wrong, but that’s what it sounds like.

Truth be told, the best music I’ve bought this year is the official release of Bruce Springsteen’s famous 1975 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Even for a diehard Bruce fan like myself, this recording is a revelation – to hear the E Street Band in its infancy, but after the addition of Steve Van Zandt, Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, is to hear history being made. One of the best live albums ever made, along with Dylan’s 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert, "Live Bullet" by Bob Seger, and a handful of others.