Summer is the most musical season. Birds chirp; children sin; celebrities organize multinational concerts for their favorite causes; R. Kelly releases a five-part, sex-fueled R&B epic; guitar gods play piano; and, among other things, indie heartthrob Sufjan Stevens continues his 50-states project with an album (about Illinois) that is more beautiful than anyone could have imagined.
R. Kelly, “Trapped in the Closet” (from “TP.3 Reloaded”) — Mr. Kelly has had 25 top-40 hits (and counting), but none of them come close to capturing the sheer grandeur of “The Closet.” The song’s now infamous plot, sung by R. Kelly with captivating ingenuity, combines the marathon sexual perversions of Joyce’s “Ulysses” with the bombast of Biggy’s “I Got A Story to Tell.” But what holds the multi-part song together is its sparkling beat, which stays interesting even by the fifth act, when the title-defining twist is finally revealed. Only an artist this smooth, strange and captivating could pull it off.
Sufjan Stevens, “Come On Feel the Illinois” — On his last album, the devout and meditative “Seven Swans,” Stevens succeeded admirably as a Nick Drake-like crooner, laying his lovely voice over tender acoustic guitars and his unassuming banjo. But on “Illinois,” the young singer-songwriter outdoes himself, creating track after track of vast and endlessly interesting soundscapes. Supported by trumpets, xylophones, pianos and glorious backup singers, he effortlessly channels the hooks of late-’60s Beach Boys, the flourish of mid-’80s Tom Waits and the unadulterated sweetness of Emmylou Harris’ religious recordings. Yet even these comparisons seem unfair, if only because Stevens has so distinctly found a sound that is all his own — one heard especially in “John Wayne Gacy,” the album’s heartbreaking masterpiece.
Live 8 — What do you get when Paul McCartney sings “Sgt. Pepper’s” with Bono on harmony duty in front of billions? Nausea! Live 8, the mega-hyped, overrated multinational series of concerts held this July, only got worse from there. Mariah Carey sang “Hero” with an African children’s chorus, after which she straight-facedly told a VH1 reporter: “I was like, ‘Oh, I have to do “Hero” with them.” Even more disappointing was Coldplay, whose new music lacks both the spine and the cuteness of their early work — and they really do need one or the other. Also someone should tell Live 8 organizer Bob Geldof to get a haircut (and to please not cry when McCartney and Bono sing together).
The Rolling Stones — Mick and his wrinkly cohorts have a new album out next month, awkwardly titled “A Bigger Bang,” so it’s only natural to return to their classic records, especially during the easygoing sunny months. It’s difficult to choose between the countrified glory of “Let It Bleed,” the archetypal swagger of “Exile on Main Street” and the grittiness of “Beggar’s Banquet.” But thankfully we don’t have to: All these albums have been remastered (along with most of the Stones’ catalogue) onto Super Audio CDs, and the music really does sound much better. Here’s something else to celebrate: “Bang” is supposed to be better than anything the ol’ boys have recorded in ages.
White Stripes, “Get Behind Me Satan” — When a modern-day guitar god makes an album almost entirely without his electric, it is fair cause for worry. And yet Jack White carries his two-man band through their new album with piano playing that pounds and throbs marvelously. Meg White gets credit too: Her drumming, which is both loved and hated for its interminable sloppiness, has never sounded more at home. The equally magnetic “My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist” have the same crude and catchy touch as Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes.” “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me),” the album’s most immediately likeable track, builds from a soft ditty into Hendrix-like vehemence.
Belle & Sebastian, “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds” — “Barman” is a two-CD, 25-track compilation of this Glasgow pop outfit’s out-of-print EPs, and it rivals almost any of their proper albums, let alone any new release of the summer. How many bands could pull that off? “Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It” is drenched in gorgeous strings and topped off with a pained pedal steel guitar, “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and “Jonathan David” are two peculiar duets that share stealthy prettiness, “Beautiful” is a delicate ballad that should have been a hit instead of Christina Aguilera’s.
Very honorable mentions: The Gorillaz’s “Demon Days” isn’t as much pure fun as the cartooned band’s debut, but Blur’s Damon Albarn and DJ Danger Mouse (famous for his million-dollar idea to mix the Beatles’ “White Album” with Jay-Z’s “Black Album”) again weave together a surprisingly rich mish-mash. Speaking of pure fun, the inescapable “Pon de Replay,” by the Barbados-born Rihanna, has to be the most syrupy sweet three minutes of dance instruction ever written. But the best pop song of the summer would have to be Missy Elliott’s sinister “Lose Control.” The rapper/producer’s curt commands sink perfectly into the menacing, disjointed beat.