Monday, October 30, 2006

It's (a)live!

Over at Stylus this week, we're celebrating the art of the live album by counting down our all-time top 50. My first two blurbs are up today, albeit trimmed down a bit (read: radio edits). (I've got another coming up later in the week.) For those interested, here they are in their original (i.e. album version) form.

#48 Laurie Anderson - United States Live (Warner Bros. 1984)
This was my introduction to the avant garde in American pop culture, or at least pop(ular) music – and what a way to go. Anderson was a semi-known quantity by the release of this four-hour-plus set (5 records, 4 CDs), having famously (okay, semi-famously) hit #2 in the UK charts in 1981 with “O Superman,” which also won the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll that year (tying with the Stones’ “Start Me Up” – talk about new meets old). She’d gotten press from the likes of Rolling Stone for her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak, but nothing prepared anyone – except those who’d seen United States performed live – for this. It misfires almost as often as it hits its mark, but for its mix of comment, art, and music, it still holds the power to astonish. This isn’t exactly a rockin’ good time, but as a document of the American avant garde in the early ‘80s, it’s invaluable (and far more entertaining than, on the surface, it has any right to be).

#44 Erykah Badu - Live (Kedar/Universal 1997)
The queen of ‘90s neo-soul released a live recording as her sophomore effort, and made it work. She didn’t even really have to try, because if there’s one thing Badu feels like live, it’s effortless. Yes, when I saw her on the ’97 Smokin’ Grooves tour, she lit incense onstage and stopped the proceedings for a cup of tea (!), but the music made up for any and all pretentions. This album captures it all, from the expansiveness of her covers of Chaka Khan (the glorious “Stay”) and Roy Ayers (“Searching,” smooth as she does) to the grit and humor of the album’s lone new song, “Tyrone” (“I’m getting’ tired of yo’ shit/You don’t never buy me nothin’” is one of the greatest opening lines ever) and the lithesome, perfect takes on Baduizm favorites such as “Next Lifetime” and “On & On.” Live is compulsively listenable and has yet, nearly a decade on, to get old; it might also be Badu’s definitive musical statement.

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