Hints for newbies: The Spotify Playlists (accessed above) are the reason this blog exists; 2) The About tab might help explain what could otherwise seem confusing about the format.
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening (2010)
M4S has now gone back ten years to build these Best Of lists and for the first time, listening to music from 2010, I felt like I was hearing slightly dated music. Electronica and technology has no doubt evolved in ten years, although I can’t articulate the specifics (I’m only an aspiring sound engineer). All I know for sure is the albums I was listening to at the time, from Broken Bells, Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend, for example, still sound good, but it’s obvious they weren’t recorded with modern-day technology. There’s something slightly rudimentary about the sound. I was particularly aware of this when listening 2010 records from electronic giants of today, like Tame Impala, Caribou and Hot Chip, all records that landed flat for me. It makes me wonder how electronica will sound in another ten years. If there’s an exception to this idea, it’s LCD Soundsytem’s incredible third album, This Is Happening, my album of the year for 2010.
1. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening 2. Vampire Weekend, Contra 3. Spoon, Transference 4. Four Tet, There Is Love in You 5. Groove Armada, Black Light 6. Ozomatli, Fire Away 7. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song 8. Two Door Cinema Club, Tourist History 9. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two 10. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
The DMA’s, The Glow (2020)
I’ve been eagerly awaited this record since hearing and loving the two singles (“Life is a Game of Changing” and “Silver”) earlier this year (M4S: 2/1/20). Happy to report the balance of this record doesn’t disappoint. It’s a little poppier than the two singles foreshadowed, but they’re executed nicely, my particular favorite being the lead off “Never Before.” This Australian band has been compared to Oasis and there’s plenty of justification (see: “Never Before”). Thomas O’Dell’s soaring vocals are on full display here. The previously released single “Life is a Game” is not only the best song on the album, but one of my favorites of 2020. A beautiful blast of energy.
Pigeonhole: Britpop revival, indie rock, alternative dance
Grouplove, Healer (2020)
Apparently long-time fans are a little disappointed in this record. But as it’s the first one I’ve heard from this Los Angeles group, I don’t know any different, and I think it’s pretty swell. The single “Deleter” kicks off the record and sets a very high bar, which is then equaled by “Expectations” and “Youth.” Vocalist Hannah Hooper was diagnosed with a brain mass during the creation of this album, which halted the project and influenced the songwriting that happened in the aftermath. Also not to be missed on this their fourth album are “Ahead of Myself,” “Burial” and “This is Everything.”
Pigeonhole: Indie pop
Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans (2020)
My latest obsession in the laptop musician category is Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden. This is the tenth album from this English electronic master and it’s a wonderful array of super chill, soft electronic sound. One of my favorite moments is when “This is For You,” a two-minute, ambient-laced track accompanied by distant piano runs, bleeds into “Mama Teaches Sanskrit.” If by this point you haven’t slipped into musically induced euphoria, may I suggest pressing rewind. “Baby” delivers cut-up vocal tracks amid chirping birds and a babbling brook. In fact, five of the sixteen cuts are basically transitional cuts of found sound, like watery synth pads and tape hiss. Apparently Hebden honed his craft years ago. There Is Love In You from ten years earlier is every bit as engrossing as this.
Pigeonhole: Electronic, house, downtempo
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (2010)
Good traditional country music is hard to find. The glory days of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Willie and Waylon are long gone, replaced by cleaned up, well-dressed pretty boys and girls whose material is so polished it sparkles. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this Jamey Johnson double album, largely reminiscent of a bygone era of country (this may be a ten-year old album, but its still not the good-ol’-days). Four or five songs in I had a gnawing feeling. It sure sounded like music that might be played at a certain president’s rallies; the ones where no one wears face masks and the confederate flag flies high. So it was off to the internet. After several minutes of googling, I came away with, well, I dunno. He’s said some non-racist things about racism that I found interesting, specifically that racist folks have nothing left to hang on to but their racism. I kept reading and, fankly, I’m not sure what his political views are. I know his lyrics don’t offend my progressive palate. I never got jingoistic, religious or gun vibes. His song “California Riots” appears to be from the perspective of someone who’s not a white supremacist. So I assured myself that I wasn’t listening to the devil’s music, and just enjoyed it. My only real complaint about the album is the length. Great musicians have a hard time delivering quality music for an hour and forty-five minutes. That’s essentially a concert, which is typically years worth of material. If it’s all so great, cut the album in half, maybe add a little filler, and release two albums (like the Foals did last year with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Parts 1 and 2). Despite all that, it was nice to hear a country artist who even Hank Williams Sr. would probably appreciate.
Rex Orange County, Pony (2019)
A big thanks to Stephen Colbert for introducing me to Rex Orange County, a musician who I’d heard of yesterday, but whom I’m all-aflutter over today! This is the third studio album from this 22-year-old Englishman and his gift lies equally in his songwriting and vocal cadence. My fave so far is “Always,” which answers the question, can people really change? “Until somebody sits me down/And tells me why I’m different now/I’ll always be the way I always am.” Other highlights are the jazzy “Laser Lights” with flute, and the utterly infectious chorus of “Face to Face.” Perhaps you’re wondering as I did what’s up with the name. It’s a nickname he picked up as a child, he’s actual name being Alexander O’Connor.
I could make a case for several albums being crowned album of the year for 1972. Lou Reed and David Bowie released groundbreaking records that would go on to be lauded, even studied, by generations of musicians. Randy Newman’s album still feels fresh nearly fifty years later. I was also thrilled to discover records by Dr. John and Al Green, both solid start-to-finish. But Elton John’s Honkey Chateau is a notch above the rest. It’s rare for a song that has been played ad nauseam for nearly half a century to still make me turn up the volume, but there are three here: “Honky Cat,” “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” All still in heavy rotation on classic radio stations everywhere, every day, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of them. The balance of the album — the lesser-known cuts – areallwondrous in their own way. Behold M4S’s Top 10 albums of 1972:
1. Elton John, Honky Chateau 2. Randy Newman, Sail Away 3. Neil Young, Harvest 4. Al Green, Let’s Stay Together 5. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street 6. Lou Reed, Transformer 7. Jethro Tull, Transformer 8. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 9. Dr. John, Dr. John’s Gumbo 10. ZZ Top, Rio Grande Mud
Matt Berringer, One More Second (2020)
Matt Berringer shares the same deadpan baritone vocal delivery as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave but the difference for me is, I actually like Berringer. There are examples of his work with The National that rub me the wrong way, but still much of it is brilliant. Three tracks are out ahead of his debut solo album due later this month, Serpentine Prison. “One More Second” and “”Distant Axis” are lovely ballads and set the bar rather high for what’s still to come. Usually when an artist splits with their original group to record as a solo artist, it’s usually to persue a slightly different sound. Not so much here. All three of these cuts could just as easily been National tunes.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, folk rock
Soccer Mommy, Color Theory (2020)
Not too long ago Sophia Regina Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) was posting DIY tunes on Bandcamp, and now her second LP has just dropped. It’s worlds better than the debut and brimming with memorable tunes. “Night Swimming” is not a cover of the great REM song by the same name, but a beautiful acoustic guitar ballad that begins with the lovely stanza: “I want someone who’s following a dream/Someone like me/Feels the air inside their body running free/I want the breeze.” Her vocals and tonality bear a slight resemblance to another up-and-coming female songwriter making waves these days, Phoebe Bridges. My fave here is “Lucy,” a moniker she’s labeled her inner demon. “I look in the mirror/And the darkness looks back at me.” Allison says the album is represented by three colors: blue for depression, yellow for mental and physical illness and gray for mortality. Apparently whatever colors she might apply to happiness, joy and optimism aren’t represented, which probably makes for a much more honest collection of lyrics.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
ZZ Top, Rio Grande Mud (1972)
I was in high school in the Eighties, so when I think of ZZ Top I think of overplayed, overproduced songs like “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’,”Legs” and “Got Me Under Pressure,” all songs that, for me, wore out their welcome years ago. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this record, their sophomore effort, from 1972. I nearly dismissed it, too, but then something clicked during “Ko Ko Blue,” an incredible blues song with soaring guitar lines and amazing vocals, as if early Rolling Stones collided with Yes. Then I went back and listened to “Just Got Paid” again and, damn, it’s really incredible, too. Some spectacular musicianship on this record, and Billy Gibbons’ vocals are perfect for the job (see also the phenomenal blues jam “Bar-B-Q”).
Pigeonhole: Southern rock, blues rock
Band of Horses, Why Are You Ok (2016)
Not sure why this album didn’t click more with me back when I heard it originally. Gave it another spin after really liking Infinite Arms (2010). Particularly enjoy “Found it in a Drawer.” although the mystery remains, after four minutes, to exactly what was found in the drawer. There’s mention of going to the laundromat, so perhaps the writer is searching for a lost rewards card at the bottom of the drawer. “Casual Party” is another highlight, although the subject matter is, again, a little murky, jumping from vacation homes, awful television, kids, a dog and a freshly-mowed lawn. BOH is gradually moving up my “like” meter, so I’m amending the 2016 best of list, moving Bob Mould’s Patch the Sky to the honorable mention category to make room for Why Are You Ok. Bob is a prolific songwriter, one of my all-time favorites. He’s also an album-releaser of monumental proportions, although there hasn’t been much variation in style over the years.
Pigeonhole: Indie pop, folk rock
Edgar Winter Group,They Only Come Out at Night (1972)
Between the notorious albino brothers, Edgar and Johnny Winter, my preference was always Johnny. His 1976 live album Captured Live! was the first true blues album I connected with, even though it would be another decade before I blossomed into a devote blues purist and quasi aficionado (Johnny produced three Muddy Waters albums in the late Seventies which, for me, are amongst the greatest blues records ever recorded.) So needless to say, Edgar was always the lesser Winter brother in my eyes, but this recording is surprisingly good. It contains what is arguably one of the most recognizable rock instrumentals of the Seventies, “Frankenstein,” which was only slightly more ubiquitous than the other over-played instrumental of the day, the Moog synth heavy “Popcorn,” by one-hit wonder Hot Butter (can you get any more contrived?). Edgar’s classic “Free Ride” is here, too (not to be confused with “Free Bird”). Sadly, “Autumn” slams the breaks on the momentum; a terrible ballad, made worse by how good the rest of the album is.
Pigeonhole: Rock, blues rock
The Japanese House, Chewing Cotton Wool (2020)
Another DIY artist on the move is Amber Bain, the talented English musician who performs under the name The Japanese House. Other than last year’s Good at Falling, she has released only LPs since 2015, six in all. If that weren’t formulaic enough, each EP is exactly four songs apiece, smart, perhaps, in this age of scattered attention spans. She does it all here: vocals, keyboards, guitar and synth. The heavily-handed production plays as much a roll here as any instrument or vocal. Her songwriting and androgynous vocals have drawn comparisons to The 1975, so it’s not surprising that they have toured and worked together. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver joins her on “Dionne,” a heavily distorted arrangement that refers the great singer two generations younger than either Vernon or Bain. Particularly like the line “We played Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By”/And Freddy put his head between his legs and cried.” My personal fave is the final cut and title track. Minimal orchestration allows Bain’s voice to beautifully engulf the space.
I got motivated to check out this new album after reading an excerpt from lead singer Mikel Jollett’s book, detailing his ordeal as a child being held captive in the Synanon cult in Venice in the mid Seventies, and then later in an orphanage. The unsettling memoir serves as a companion piece to the album, a song per chapter. Musically, it’s way better than I expected. I’m particularly fond of the title track, which laments the demolition of the famous racetrack/casino in Inglewood where his father used to take him when he was a child. Referring to the track’s recent demolition to make room for the new NFL football stadium, Jollett sings: “And when they tore it down, there was a wrecking sound/And it rattled through my bones/And then a cry went out through the streets that night/’Cause we knew we’d lost our home.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a song about modern gentrification until now. Also particularly wonderful is “All These Engagements.”
Elvis Presley, He Touched Me (1972)
I’d never listened to an entire Elvis Presley album until now and, to be fair, this was probably not the best place to start. The peak of his career had come and gone by this point and he was approaching “Fat Elvis” status. Before we go any further, I have to mention the title track. Oh, how times have changed. Yeah, Elvis was talking about Jesus, but even Jesus couldn’t get away with touching someone today, at least not without expressed consent. This was his third gospel album and clearly he hadn’t mastered the art even after a trifecta. It’s more evidence that most white folk should leave gospel to the folks that invented it, the black folks (compare this Elvis album to the one reviewed last week on M4S, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, and then decide who has the better gospel chops). Elvis still remains the best-selling solo artist ever, some estimates put his total number of units sold approaching a billion (yes, with a “B”). If there was anything on this album worth recommending I would, but I can’t. Although for sheer humor and irony, maybe give “There Is No God” a thirty-second spin.
Randy Newman, Sail Away (1972)
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who famously battled mental illness and drug addiction, credits this album with keeping him from sliding further into depression in the early Seventies (he said he physically wrote down all the lyrics to the album longhand while he listened). Newman, the satirical Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter/composer, might be best remembered for his hit “I Love LA” (1983) or the tongue-in-cheek “Short People” (“got no reason to live”) from 1977. This album is considered Newman’s best and would launch a career that would flourish for five decades. It was great to hear “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which Newman wrote but was popularized by Joe Cocker. “Old Man,” about coming home to bid farewell to a dying father, is a real tearjerker. Also love the circus imagery of “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” He’s had ninety-two Academy Award nominations in various musical categories as well twenty-two for original score, including nine Disney-Pixar animated film scores.
Pigeonhole: Pop rock, Americana
Avett Brothers, The Third Gleam (2020)
Their 2009 album I And Love And You is one of my faves of all time, but I’ve been a little disappointed in the bros since then. This new release is the third installment in the Gleam Series (the others released in 2006 and 2008) featuring a stripped down version of the band, with only brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bass player Bob Crawford. This one, like the other two, falls way short for me. The songs are missing depth and emotion; simple lyrics, simple chord progressions. In short, these tunes don’t make me feel anything. They’re simple songs about standard topics (parenting, surviving as a modern-day American), exploring no new ground along the way.
Pigeonhole: Country folk
Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (2011)
It’s easy to confuse the Adams musicians Ryan and Bryan. Rhyming first names only compounds the problem. I know one is better than the other, but I really have to stop and think which one. Ryan Adams once famously stopped a concert after a heckler kept shouting Bryan Adams’ best-known, albeit god-awful, song, “Summer of ’69, presumably as a joke. Ryan went into the audience, found the culprit, gave him thirty dollars as reimbursement for his ticket, and wouldn’t continue playing until the jokester left the building. So there’s your answer as to who’s the better Adams. Ashes & Fire is his thirteenth album, from which the single “Lucky Now” is perhaps the most recognizable song. But I was blown away by the rest of it, a collection of acoustic songwriting so beautiful and (occasionally) heartbreaking you just want to hug the guy when he’s done. Two songs in particular struck me. “Kindness” is about a guy in need of help from a broken heart, looking for someone to offer a little kindness. “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” is an anthem for clumsy guys in love who want to express themselves but somehow never can. I’m a sucker for melancholy songwriting, and Ryan Adams does it better than anyone. Worlds better than Bryan Adams.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, indie rock
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace (1972)
Live albums don’t qualify for consideration here at M4S, since our mission is to highlight the best new material from a particular year, and live albums (like greatest hits collections and a soundtracks) tend to be made up of songs spanning many different years. But I felt I had to at least listen to this album, since it’s the biggest seller in Aretha’s fifty-plus year career, and the highest-selling gospel record of all time (over two million copies in the US). Now I know why. Holy cow, what an experience! I’m not a religious man but by the end of this record I would have bought anything Aretha Franklin was selling, from encyclopedias to Jesus. Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the Southern California Community Choir, this double album makes you feel like you you’re right there, almost fifty years ago, jumping up from the pews and shouting “Hallelujah!” Absolutely not to be missed is the eleven-minute version of “Amazing Grace.” It’s nothing like what you expect.
Destroyer, Kaputt (2011)
This (2011) wasn’t an easy year to choose a best album. Back then, the only albums I was listening to from 2011 were by The Decemberists, Bob Schneider and Adel. Going back, I find numerous gems I missed. Among the eighty-two albums I considered, I settled on Kaputt by Destroyer as my top album of the year. I initially balked at listening to this record, based solely on the band’s name. I made the inaccurate assumption they were metal or goth, that they’d be ear splitting and bombastic. Nothing could be further from the truth. I found it helpful to approach this band with an open mind and willingness to bend the definition of pop/rock. Frontman Dan Bejar (late of the New Pornographers) is admittedly an acquired taste. He doesn’t have so much a singer’s voice but an actor’s delivery. His poetic lines often feel off key. He’s been compared to David Bowie, I suspect more because he redefines stereotypes and not because there’s any like-for-like comparison between Bowie and Bejar. This is Destroyer’s ninth album (Kaputt my personal introduction to the band) and Bejar credits both Miles Davis and Roxy Music as inspiration for the laid back, lounge-ish feel. Kaputt’s true place in history might lie somewhere in the early Eighties; a combination of soft rock, smooth jazz and romantic pop. My personal favorite is “Poor in Love,” about a guy who’s either been deprived of love or knows he’s woefully inadequate at it. Either way, the use of the word “poor” to describe his predicament really underscores the emotion.
1. Destroyer, Kaputt 2. Ryan Adams, She’s & Fire 3. Wilco, The Whole Love 4. Tom Waits, Bad As Me 5. Bob Schneider, A Perfect Day 6. Adel, 7. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming 8. SBRKT, SBRKT 9. Cage The Elephant, Thank You Happy Birthday 10. The Decembrists, The King Is Dead
Tinariwen, Tassili St. Vincent, Strange Mercy Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ Little Dragon, Ritual Union TV On The Radio, Nine Types of Light Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys My Morning Jacket, Circuital Girls, Father Son Holy Ghost
Washed Out, Purple Noon (2020)
One of my favorite musical genres, if for no other reason than the implication, is “bedroom pop.” I guess such music is supposed to promote certain activities in the bedroom. Personally, I think the genre should be broken down further, to take into consideration what kind of (let’s face it) sex we’re talking about. I’m mean there’s the romantic kind, where you gaze into each other’s eyes in a loving embrace, and then there’s the animalistic kind, where it’s mostly about self gratification. The former, I would argue, is the version perfected by Ernest Weatherly Green (aka Washed Out). There is something sultry, sexy and methodical about pretty much everything he does, particularly on this new album. Green, who incidentally has a degree in “librarian and information science,” seems to grow a little more with every album. This one in particular seems richer in production value and harmonies than his past work, particularly stronger than 2011’s Within and Without, his best performing album previously (Within and Without just so happens to have a cover shot of a topless man and woman in a passionate embrace, where else but in bed).
Pigeonhole: Bedroom pop, dream pop, chill wave
M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)
It’s not always easy to sit through an entire album. It has to be really special to keep my twenty-first century attention span engaged. Mustering the patience for a double album borders on a major life commitment. So it says something that I sat through this, not once but twice. Eagerly! At times it comes off a trifle overdramatic. The opening cut could be a mash up of the Tabernacle Choir and the NY Philharmonics. M83 (a reference to the M83 galaxy, a mere fifteen million light-years away, btw) is the brainchild of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Gonzalez, who creates a spectacle of sound here that stops just short of being over-the-top. The almost cinematic feel isn’t disingenuous. Gonzalez has leant his talents to both movie and stage scores (he was musical director for Cirque du Solieil’s VOLTA in 2017). It’s less than two minutes long, but “Another Wave From You” feels like that moment in a movie when everything comes together, where a plot twist is revealed in a crescendo of sound. “Echoes of Mine” could be used in scene where a victorious underdog finally getting her due. Other gems: “Wait” and “New Map.”
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, dream pop
Glass Animals,Dreamland (2020)
These guys are quickly becoming a M4S favorite! ZABA (M4S: 4/23/20) and How To Be A Human Being (M4S: 1/19/20) are so good they made my best of lists in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Now this new record is a strong contender for the 2020 list. There’s something immensely appealing about Dave Bayley’s vocals (incidentally, he studied neuroscience in college; the fella’s multitalented). Much of the inspiration behind these lyrics came from Bayley’s flashbacks of growing up in Texas, where he was keenly aware of the expectation to fit into masculine sterotypes, which were unnatural to him (he’s straight, btw). In the album’s opening cut he sings: “You go ask your questions like what makes a man/Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that/So you go make an album and call it Dreamland.” GA trods on some new ground here, specifically “Tokyo Drifting,” featuring American rapper Denzel Curry. In the song, Wavey Davey (Bayley’s ultra ego) is snorting something: “Drug lust and two packets in your pocket/Clear score, dust hits your nose like a rocket.” There are numerous highlights, my two favorites being “Your Love (Déjà vu),” and “Tangerine.” The last two minutes of the album (“Helium”) are beautifully fluid and gentle, colored with an electronic keyboard and a bit of suspense (spoiler: the song isn’t over when you think it is. Nor when you think it is a second time).
I can only assume everyone is as sick of “Pumped Up Kicks” as me. It was the huge (and unexpected) hit off of this album and was nearly impossible to avoid for the better part of a year. It was the only song I skipped when listening to this disc, which made the remainder feel entirely fresh and new, and quite good, surprisingly. My favs: “I Would Do Anything for You,” “Houdini” and “Warrant.”
Pigeonhole: Indie pop
The Who, Who’s Next (1971)
As it turns out, 1971 was the perfect year to jump back and start retracing my musical steps. (Reminder, M4S is now considering albums from two years at once, forty years apart, 2011 and 1971.) Perfect because 1971 was the first year in nearly a decade that The Beatles weren’t taking up all the oxygen. Which begged the question: Who’s next? There were plenty of contenders, and all relatively new to the scene, like Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Yes, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison (all English acts, btw) and, on the American front, The Beach Boys and The Doors. But for me it was this album that stands out in 1971, slightly edging Zeppelin’s IV, as my album of the year. I don’t believe the album title has anything to do with the question of who would take over the throne from The Beatles. It’s just ironic. Some of the lyrics here clearly wouldn’t fly today (on “My Wife,” Roger Daltrey threatens to get a gun, or a black belt in judo, or a tank to protect himself against his wife, who suspects he’s been with another woman). The power of this collection is astonishing, even fifty years later. There is no better album lead-off than “Baba O’Riley,” with its insatiable opening, the tinkling of Lowrey organ keys, the pounding of piano chords, then a drum combo which leads to Daltrey’s booming vocal introduction. The energy on this album just builds from there, with legendary songs as “Bargain,” “Going Mobile” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” Then, just as it started, the album ends with one of the great rock songs ever, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” punctuated by Daltrey’s scream heard around the world.
If you take the English bands out of the equation, it’s interesting to consider what was happening with American rock in 1971. The most interesting acts were mostly bands of color, consider Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Santana, James Brown. Not sure what the takeaway is from that, but it’s an observation worth note.
On a more personal note, 1971 was a pivotal year in my musical awareness. Barely in kindergarten, I acquired my very first full-length album, The Partridge Family’s Up to Date, an absolutely unlistenable disc now, but at the time, it was my entire world, probably because there were two little kids in the band (Danny Bonaduce and Suzanne Crough). To be more precise, they appear to be in the band on the television show, but aren’t even mentioned on the album; a detail too fine for my awareness at the time). Had I been eighteen instead of eight, perhaps my musical taste would have been refined enough to appreciate these amazing records:
M4S Best LPs of 1971
1. The Who, Who’s Next 2. Led Zeppelin, IV 3. The Doors, LA Woman 4. John Prine, John Prine 5. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers 6. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain 7. Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On 8. Santana, Santana III 9. Pink Floyd, Meddle 10. Yes, Fragile
Carole King, Tapestry; Joni Mitchell, Blue; Jethro Tull, Aqualung;Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On; Black Sabbath, Master of Reality;Elton John, Madman Across the Water;David Bowie, Hunky Dory; Al Green, Gets Next To You
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (2011)
“Chloe in the Afternoon,” in addition to being the first cut on St. Vincent’s third album, was also the North American title of a 1972 French film about a love triangle that presented a multitude of moral dilemmas. What Anne Erin Clark (aka St. Vincent) is trying to tell us by using this obscure reference is anybody’s guess. In the movie, a married man fantasizes about having the power to seduce any woman he wants, but when an ex very nearly gets him in bed, he’s stricken with guilt and flees before anything can happen, in tears, to return home to his wife and newborn. In St. Vincent’s version, it’s hard to know what’s going on. “Find my heels/Heal my pain” is about all we have to work with in this lyrically sparse opener. Other highlights include “Champagne Year,” “Year of the Tiger” (about her experience with depression) and the magnificent single “Cruel,” about, among other things, the cruelty of having to “look good.” Clark began her musical career with the Polyphonic Spree and later as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. To create the eleven cuts on this her third solo album, Clark self-isolated the recording studio of Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, indie rock
The Doors, LA Woman (1971)
Like anyone with ears, I’m quite familiar with The Doors’ hits. Songs like “Light My Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” and “LA Woman” are embedded in the memories of those of us from a certain era. But my Doors’ knowledge was pretty shallow otherwise, so over the last two days I’ve listened to every Doors album featuring Jim Morrison and have come to the less-than-novel conclusion: Jim Morrison was a tragic, fascinating and troubled soul, more poet than musician, and singularly responsible for the entirety of the Doors’ success. That final point was reached after also listening to Other Voices, released in late 1971, after Morrison’s death earlier that year. For me it’s proof that, without Morrison, The Doors really aren’t much more than a great blues band. Ray Manzarek is a phenomenal keyboardist and a curious character himself. But the mythology of The Doors is greatly diminished without the troubled Morrison. The Doors’ self-titled debut (1967) is in sharp contrast to what the Beatles were doing at the time, which was essentially monopolizing the airwaves with polished, almost bubble gum pop. The Doors were the anti-Beatles; Morrison the bad boy who incited chaos, drank himself into oblivion, and stuck his finger in the eye of authority. For me, Morrison’s final album with The Doors, LA Woman, is a masterpiece. Some of the most memorable moments aren’t even musical, the punch of a car accelerator that begins the title track, or the thunder clap and pounding rain of “Riders.” There’s nothing I can say about this album or this band that hasn’t been said before other than, if you haven’t listened to it, you should.
Pigeonhole: Rock, psychedelic rock
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia (2020)
It’s still 2020 (damnit!) which means I’m looking for things, any things, to take my mind off, you know, 2020. Enter my latest distraction: Future Nostalgia by the English pop star Dua Lipa. This is her sophomore effort, which is always a scary prospect for musicians, but Future Nostalgia is anything but a let down, in fact, it’s leaps and bounds better than her debut. For me, it’s the most rewarding album of year, so far. It’s fun and catchy and danceable and quite possibly an addictive substance. It didn’t take long to get pulled in. She had my undivided attention on the second line of the opening verse, when she mentions a famed twentieth century Los Angeles architect by name! “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game/Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.” Not exactly the kind of reference you’d expect from an English pop star. From there, the record keeps building and delivering without a bad song in the bunch. It’s hard to even pick a couple favorites, but those in a hurry should go immediately to “Hallucinate,” “Cool” or “Levitating.” After that, you’ll probably be pulled in like me and listen to the entire thing. Over and over and over.
Pigeonhole: Synth pop, dance-pop
Black Sabbath, Master of Reality (1971)
I was never a fan. For one thing, when Sabbath was at it’s peak, in the early ‘70s, I was still a little tike, being raised in a suburban white neighborhood by conservative Presbyterian parents. Not that certain music was forbidden. But I wasn’t drawn to “metal” rock, and this album is considered one of the bedrocks of the genre. So today was my first sitting through an entire Sabbath album, and was rather indifferent, until the seventh song. Just knowing they were capable of “Solitude” made me suddenly question everything. I listened to the next song, “Into The Void,” with a more open mind than I’ve ever summoned for Black Sabbath and suddenly had an ah-ha moment, which inspired another pass through the album. What I appreciate most is how the guitar is not in my face all the time, as it easily could have been. Instead, it’s almost muted in the mix. Which makes the whole thing bearable. For me, if it’s not Jimi or Stevie, I’m not that interested in blazing guitar work anymore. Even with my favorite band, the guitarist is the only expendable member. There’s some nice drumming by Bill Ward, and Ozzie Osbourne’s voice is just wicked crazy. I’m not ready to kneel at the alter of Black Sabbath, I’ll only say the days of dismissing them based on not much more than a hunch are over.
Pigeonhole: Heavy metal
Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death (2020)
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed at first. Their debut Dogrel (2019) is an incredible example of Celtic post-punk and one of my favorites from last year (see M4S: 1/5/20). So I was expecting the same raw, controlled aggression here and, while there’s some, a mournful pall is cast over most of it. It opens with a creeping ballad orated by the monotone Grian Chatten. It’s not how I expected a Fontaines album to burst out of the gate, nor is the second cut any more brazen. A flurry of bass drum and high hat hints at something explosive, only for Chatten to chime in with vocals so deadpan and somber you want to reach for the Zoloft. It doesn’t all drag. There are cuts more in line with my expectations, like “A Hero’s Death” that repeats the line “life ain’t always empty” until the point is thoroughly driven home. “I Was Not Born” is a real standout that would’ve fit nicely into the Dogrel mix. “No” wraps up the album, again at a more plodding pace than expected, and with lyrics uncharacteristically bordering on uplifting: “Don’t you play around with blame/It does nothing for the pain/And please don’t lock yourself away/Just appreciate the grey.” The problem with this record, though, is probably me. I committed the ultimate sin: listening to a new record with preconceived notions. If, instead, I’d told myself this was just some random band from Dublin, I would’ve been struck by the diversity of tone and texture. Moreover, had A Hero’s Death been a blast furnace like their debut, I probably would have called it predictable and repetitive.
SBTRKT, SBTRKT (2011)
English musician and producer Aaron Jerome goes by the stylized name SBTRKT (the word “subtract” with several letters, um, subtracted) which seems appropriate since there are times it feels like these mixes might actually be missing something, too. Maybe it’s the skeletal structure of dubstep that makes most of these tunes work. This debut album offers several gems, like “Hold On,” “Look At Stars” and my personal fav, “Pharaohs” featuring vocalist Roses Gabor, who’s collaborated with the likes of Gorillaz.
Pigeonhole: Post-dubstep electronica, house
Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970)
I haven’t smoked from a bong in decades, but lockdown tedium got the best of me and, while browsing one particular website, I hit the “Add to Cart” button and a few days later (today) my very own water pipe showed up on my doorstep in perfect condition. So I abandoned my regularly scheduled pandemic isolation plans to give the new apparatus a try, choosing Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother as accompaniment. About five minutes into the twenty-three minute opening title track, with it’s over the top orchestration and vocal choir, I had to stop what I was doing and lie down. The combination of everything was overwhelming. I’m not sure how much of it was the new smoking vessel and how much was Pink Floyd, but the combination demanded my undivided attention. At some point during the song I looked at my phone screen, saw there was another ten minutes to go, and I was like, okay, I’m good with that. This is Floyd’s fifth studio album and while the title track consumes the entirety of side A, the flip side focuses more on individual members. Keyboardist Richard Wright’s “Summer of ‘68” was the only one of these songs Pink Floyd ever performed in concert. The album is most interesting at the beginning and the end, finishing with drummer Nick Mason’s twelve-minute, three-part instrumental “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” which has so much going on, from ambient noise (including the disgusting sound of an open mouth chewing) to perhaps some subliminal messaging, it’s difficult to comprehend. But like a puzzle that makes no sense but keeps your interest anyway.
Pigeonhole: Experimental rock
Cubicolor, Brainsugar (2016)
There’s something dreamy and soothing going on here. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Digby-Bell, has been compared to Thom Yorke, but I hear more Tyrone Lindqvist of Rufus de Sol. His vocals make Cubicolor the wonderful listening experience it is. Take him out of the mix and you’d be left with not much more than a skeleton. “Dead End Thrills.” and “Mirror Play” are the standouts. Footnote: This post amends the Top 10 list for 2016, published a few months back. I’d missed this record back then, and circled back only after hearing their new album, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night (a serious consider for the best of 2020). To make room on the 2016 list, I bumped Blackstar by David Bowie, which is an interesting album, but will be remembered mostly because it was released two days before his death).
Pigeonhole: Electonica, dream synth
Taylor Swift, folklore (2020)
Here’s something I couldn’t say a year ago: I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan. I’m now intimately familiar with four of her albums (see M4S: 5/26/20; 7/10/20) and unlike the other three (Lover, 1989, Red), this one took some getting used to. I like Taylor Swift in all her moods, but I especially like when she’s backed by big instrumentation. There are instruments being played here, but they’re muted, almost an afterthought. Some of the best cuts offer little more than her incredible voice, like the wonderfully stark “Hoax,” or “Peace,” a song most notable for the maturity in her voice. Or on “Seven,” which includes the magnificent bridge: “Please picture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Any time I wanted.” As only she can, many of these songs deal with love, sometimes shattered, sometimes euphoric, but always delivered in deeply emotional terms. It’s hard to hear “Illicit Affairs” and not think it’s about being involved with someone famous, say, Taylor Swift. I’m not yet enamored with every cut. The duet with Bon Iver doesn’t work for me yet, and I’m only slowly warming to both “Mirrorball” and “Mad Woman.” But overall, I’m shocked by this collection, if for no other reason than there seems to be no end to Taylor Swift’s ability to create incredible music.
Tom Waits, Bad As Me (2011)
At some point you have to wonder if Tom Waits will ever lose his edge. Far from getting tiresome, his shtick feels fresh as ever on this, his sixteenth album. It’s also his last studio album to date (could a nearly ten-year absence portend an overdue song dump to come?). Tom Waits is to music what Wes Anderson is to movie making, which is to say, head-scathingly eccentric and borderline unstable. How many musicians can claim to be relevant and fresh on album sixteen? There’s so much to like here, nothing skip worthy. The gospel tinged “Satisfied,” the blues burner “Raised Right Men” and the title track are my particular favorites. But there’s a golden nugget in every cut. Cameo appearances by such heavyweights as Keith Richards, Flea and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.
Hints for newbies: 1) The playlists (accessed above) are the reason this blog exists, 2) The About tab might explain what could otherwise seem puzzling about the format.
“If I spend forty minutes listening toa new album, I might have forty seconds worth of opinion.” JM
Can, Tago Mago (1971)
This is one of the key players in krautrock history, although I admit my ignorance of them until now. (Sidenote: the term krautrock has been widely used in referencing a period in early German rock history. It has obvious derogatory connotations; the root word is certainly a slur against German people. I wonder when it, too, will fall in this age of language sensitivity). I appreciate this album’s cult following, but I have to wonder if the entire experience requires a certain amount of mind-altering chemicals. The influence of psychedelic drugs can only be assumed here; the reference, for example, to mushrooms on the second cut isn’t the kind you put on a pizza. Clearly songs like “Aumgn” — sixteen minutes of pure madness — were not meant to hear sober. Bassist Holgar Czukay described Can’s improvisational songwriting as “instant composition.” Bands from the Sex Pistols to Radiohead have credited Can with inspiring them.
Pigeonhole: Krautrock, experimental rock, avant-funk
Tinariwen, Tassili (2011)
Such a wonderful discovery! This Tuareg ethnic group from the Sahara Dessert region of northern Mali has been around since 1979 but didn’t start getting attention beyond the region until much later. This 2011 record won the Grammy for Best World Music Album, the title of which, I believe, translates into “plateau of rivers.” Many of these songs are about African landscape and the African condition, like “Imidiwan Win Sahara” which alerts: “My friends from Sahara our freedom is gone/Let’s unite or else we shall all vanish.” There is the occasional love song, like “Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan,” written to a “secretive girl friend” who goes from camp to camp “talking to all and sundry/When love is rooted in the heart/Only spells can rip it out.” The musicianship here is unique and complex, like the incredible acoustic guitar finger work on “Tameyawt.” Guest appearances by Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio and Nels Cline of Wilco
Pigeonhole: World, African blues
The Shins, Port Of Morrow (2012)
This is the band’s fourth album, but actually the first with this particular lineup. Frontman James Mercer parted ways with the original members after their 2007 album in what he called an “aesthetic decision.” The move appears to have paid off because this is a marvelous collection. Mercer has one of those great, recognizable voices in rock (also with Broken Bells and Modest Mouse). Perhaps most charming is the complexity of the lyrics. These aren’t simple narratives. Take for example the opening verse from one of my favorite cuts, “It’s Only Life”:
“Died in the world, you’ve been cornered by a natural desire/ You want to hop along with the giddy throng through life/ But how will you learn to steer when you’re grinding all your gears?”
There’s a lot to unpack there, and plenty left to interpretation. “Bait And Switch,” about a relationship with someone who turns out to be more difficult than anticipated, is a terrific jam with deep hooks and soaring vocals. “No Way Down” also covers a lot of territory, part environmental issues, part the disparity between the working class and the wealthy. Also, really fond of the quirky and amazing “Fall of ’82.”
This Shins’ album rounds out my Top 10 for 2012 (see full list below). I’m going to take a slight detour now and jump back forty years from the next logical Top 10 list (2011) and consider albums from both 2011 and 1971 (refresher: M4S is a project to compile best of lists from each year I’ve been alive). Also, this marks the first time I review a year in which I’m already familiar with several candidates. This will continue to happen, as these lists go back in time, to an era when I actually bought and listened to records. But there are still many, many LPs from the vinyl era still unheard. So as H.G Wells might say, let’s jump in the time machine and take a little trip. But first, the latest:
M4S Best LPs of 2012
1. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
2. Poolside, Pacific Standard Time
3. Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again
4. Dave Matthews Band, Away From The World
5. Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives
6. Xxyyxx, XXYYXX
7. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
8. Heartless Bastards, Arrow
9. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
10. The Shins, Port Of Morrow
HONORABLE MENTION: The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio; Yuna, Yuna; fun., Some Nights; The Coup, Sorry for the Interruption; Deadmau5,album title goes here
The Chicks, Gaslighter (2020)
The heightened awareness of racial insensitivity has garnered another victory now that the word “Dixie” has been stricken from this storied country-rock group’s name. For years they’d gotten flak for the “Chicks” part of their name, but apparently “Dixie” is now the more offensive word, and so it’s gone the way of “Antebellum” for the band name now simply called Lady A. I was a huge fan of The Chicks’ albums Fly (1999) and Home (2002) but can’t say this current LP rises to that level. There are plenty of sweet spots, including the fist three cuts, particularly “Texas Man.” Later on, “Julianna Calm Down” is one of the more layered and interesting songs The Chicks have ever released. As has become their trademark, this album frequently delves into the behavior of awful men. The song “Gaslighter” could be directed at the current POTUS, but more likely at lead singer Natalie Maines’ ex-husband. While they were married he bought a boat and named it “Nautalee,” which is most likely the boat referenced in the kiss-off tune “Tights on My Boat” which begins with the line: “I hope you die in your sleep/Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” These aren’t all great songs. “I Hope It’s Something Good” is nothing short of dull. Boring lyrics and a drab arrangement with no new twist to the old theme of guy leaves girl for another girl. The next cut, “Set Me Free,” also just hangs there like a wet sock on a clothesline.
Pigeonhole: Country pop
My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall II (2020)
Earlier this year I discovered two solo albums by the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, Jim James, Uniform Clarity and Eternally Even (M4S: 1/8/20; 1/13/20). Loving both, I dug into the MMJ catalogue and found more gems. I’ve given MMJ’s latest release, The Waterfall II, several listens and, while I enjoy parts, most of it doesn’t grab me. The country-ish “Climbing The Ladder” is a bright spot, and “Feel You” is a great example of James’ vocal capabilities. But I’m not rushing back to this disc like I was with James’ solo stuff. His vocals on the opening track, “Spinning My Wheels,” feel almost sour.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
The Coup, Sorry To Bother You (2012)
This album may have been a few years before its time. The current environment is perfect for a rebellious, political hip-hop collection, in the vain as Rage Against the Machine. This is the sixth album by The Coup, and its title was inspired by frontman Boots Riley’s days as a telemarketer. Kazoos take center stage on “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” about partying in a privileged kids’ house: “Your daddy gonna make you VP of sales/Don’t mix good shit with the ginger ale/Pacific Heights ain’t Sunnydale/You could murder somebody and be out on bail.”
Pigeonhole: Party rap
Troye Sivan, Bloom (2018)
Earlier this year I was enamored with the debut from Lauv, and now, in the same young, white, electropop singer category, I’m learning of Troye Sivan. The two have so much in common (like the same target audience) they’ve actually become friends. Sivan might be best known for co-starring in the gay conversion therapy movie Boy Erased. But this former YouTube vlogger is an incredibly talented vocalist. The big hit here is his duet with Ariana Grande “Dance To This,” although for me the first three songs are the best. Also exceptional is the ballad “Postcard,” a duet with Gordi.
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, electropop
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE (2012)
In the last couple weeks I’ve found half a dozen albums that will be among my favorites, probably forever. And it’s not exactly that long a list. The latest is channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean. My intro to him was blond in 2016, considered one of the top LPs of the decade. I loved it, but I may love this even more. It’s incredible, start to finish. And I mean literally start to finish. The album begins and ends with captivating ambient sound, the final cut had me completely mesmerized, after an emotionally draining hour of brilliant music. I struggled to figure out what was happening in the last two minutes of the album. It opens with sound from inside a car, the radio’s on, a man’s voice is heard, then some chatter, then the radio is turned up, a Frank Ocean song called “Voodoo” is playing, then the radio is turned down, there’s unintelligible chatter between people in the car, then maybe dubbed in sound of fire, then maybe a monster growling, then the woman in the car says she wishes (he?) could see what she sees in him. Then maybe the sound of kissing, more “Voodoo,” then the car door opens, then closes, then footsteps, through what sounds like puddles, then maybe grass, then more puddles. The rustling of keys leads to the sound of a door opening, then closing, then, inside the house, the sound of the deadbolt locking, then footsteps, and more footsteps, and that’s how channel ORANGE ends, and everything that came before it is absolutely incredible. At first I thought “Pyramids” might be overdone, at nine minutes plus, but now that I know it, there’s nothing to trim. It’s all scrumptious. And the album just expands from there. Not that it gets better, because the whole thing is brilliant. But I could lose myself in the last six songs on this album. From “Lost” through “Forrest Gump” it’s a magnificent ride.
Pigeonhole: R&B, avant-garde
Lady A: Doin’ Fine (2018); Need You Now (2010);
I’m amused by the current controversy involving the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum changing its name to Lady A, which also happens to be the performance name of a Seattle blues and soul singer who’s used the moniker for years. Worried that their name gave off too much slavery vibe, Lady Antebellum officially changed the name a few months back, which got Seattle Lady A in a tizzy. Now, the issue is headed to federal court! Which is all rather ridiculous, but also an excuse to listen to both Lady As. I chose Need You Now from the more famous Lady A and, aside from the familiar title track, it’s nothing I want to hear again. Way too cleaned up for my taste in country music. Seattle Lady A, meanwhile, has an amazing blues voice. Her guttural bursts on “That Man” and “Change the World” are just beautiful. But much like Need You Now is cleaned up country, Doin’ Fine feels like forced blues. It doesn’t strike me as authentic in either case. As for Lady v. Lady; all I know is, if Antebellum hadn’t changed their name, thousands of people never would have known Lady A of the great Northwest. So maybe everybody has already won.
Pigeonhole: Country, blues
Taylor Swift, Red (2012)
I used to scoff at Taylor Swift, back in the days before I’d even listened to an entire album of hers. I based this on an assumption, that she was a shallow teenage phenom and I, a sophisticated middle-aged musicologist (the middle-aged part being the only truth therein). I never felt part of her target audience. That was before I became acquainted with 2019’s Lover, an absolutely brilliant album. Then I had the same reaction to 1989. And now, this. I was familiar with the hits “Trouble” and “Begin Again,” which are both wonderful. But it was the cuts I’d never heard before that blew me away. Like the album opener, “State of Grace,” an explosive song with a gripping final stanza, or the powerful “Holy Ground.” Both are nothing short of epic. With three Tay Tay albums now under my belt, I’ve decided there are three categories of Taylor Swift songs: Ones about relationships that are flourishing and wonderful (“Stay Stay Stay”), ones about relationships that are rocky (“All Too Well”), and ones that are over but not forgotten (“I Almost Do”). I’ve also come to the conclusions that Taylor Swift isn’t finished writing a song until she’s absolutely sure it’s got a hook that lands, because she gets me every time.
Ed O’Brien, Earth (2020)
If this were my final Top 10 list for 2020, I’d call it a great year in music. But we’re only halfway through! Some of these will no doubt get bumped in the next six months as new stuff gets released. But for now, these are my favorites. I’m not big on naming the album of the year (or in this case, half year). But I need album art for this post, and I absolutely adore EOB’s solo effort, so it tops this list, at least for now.
1. Ed O’Brien, Earth
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
3. Lauv, Lauv
4. Poolside, Around the Sun
5. Jason Mraz, Look For The Good
6. Elephant Stone, Hollow
7. Moses Sumney, grae Part 1
8. Mac Miller, Circles
9. The Strokes, The New Abnormal
10. M. Ward, Migration Stories
Deadmau5, >album title goes here< (2012)
Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, is one of the famous masked DJs working today (along with Daft Punk and Marshmello). Perhaps that will be the first phase of reopening dance clubs: everyone in full headgear, just like Deadmau5 and his contemporaries. This is the sixth album by this six-time Grammy nominated Canadian DJ. Amusing footnote: In 2014 the Walt Disney Company considered taking legal action against Dadmau5’s logo, saying it infringed on the company’s trademark rights of the iconic Mickey Mouse image (the case was eventually dropped without action).
Pigeonhole: Electronic, progressive house
Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives (2012)
He’s got one of those instantly recognizable voices, best known for his work with Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. This is Gibbard’s first solo effort, and was eight years in the making, during the span of three relationships and long bouts of drinking and sobriety (he says). He’s credited with playing most of the instruments here. It’s a seemingly bottomless well of melodies and hooks without a dud in the bunch, my favorites being “Dream Song,” the quasi-country “Broken Yoke in Western Sky” and the ELO-ish “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” Another unmistakable voice in modern music, Aimee Mann, appears for the terrific duet “Bigger Than Love.”
Pigeonhole: Pop, rock
Matt Pond PA, The Dark Leaves (2010)
I found this band under the “Fans Also Like” section of Spotify (not even sure which band I was originally hearing), and boy was the algorithm right! I had to listen to this record four times to make sure I was head over heals. I can’t put my figure on what’s so appealing. These are simple songs, nothing particularly remarkable about the playing or the vocals. But the songs are infectious and comforting in their simplicity. “Starting,” “Specks” and “Brooklyn Fawn” are standouts, but also I love the retro feel of songs like “The Dark Leaves Theme.” This is their eighth album, entirely produced with guitarist Chris Hansen in a cabin in Bearsville, NY. In 2017 Matt Pond PA disbanded, and whatever came next for them individually is something I will look into, someday.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
Dave Matthews Band, Live Trax Vol. 29 (2014)
Recorded eighteen years later (June 1, 2013, in Cuyahoga Falls, OH), you can almost hear the rigors of touring, bourbon and cigarettes in Dave’s voice. If there’s a generalization that can be made between the two volumes, it’s that DMB became more of a band as the years went on. Dave was kind of the focal point in the band’s infancy. He was charismatic and attractive and his name was right there in the band’s name. But individually, DMB has always been a collection of some of the finest players in modern rock. The concert opener here, “Warehouse,” doesn’t get interesting until Dave stops singing and the others jump in, specifically Rashawn Ross on trumpet. This tour followed the release of Away From The World, and there are plenty of great obscure and modern era DMB tunes here, including the incredible “Captain” (which I’ve never heard at the fifty-one shows I’ve attended to date). Later, everyone gets the spotlight on “Crush,” which incudes a seven-minute instrumental jam highlighting the genius of drummer Carter Beauford and violinist Boyd Tinsley. This Live Trax volume was recorded after the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore but before the exit of Tinsley. Jeff Coffin had been with DMB five years as of this show, and offers an incredible flute solo on “Bartender.” As for the original members, Beauford and Tinsley are nothing short of brilliant on “Ants Marching,” which builds a massive wall of sound in a legendary concert finale. This is a great mix of old and new material and a perfect example of a superior DMB show you might see today.
Pigeonhole: rock, jam band, jazz fusion
Dave Matthews Band, Live Trax Vol. 21 (2012)
About now we’d be headed into the bulk of the summer concert schedule which, for me, used to mean attending a couple Dave Matthews Band shows somewhere on the map. For years I used concert dates as an excuse to visit cities where I’d never been. Of course, Covid has ruined all that. As a workable substitute, I’m consuming DMB concert recordings known as the Live Trax (Trax being the venue where DMB got its start in Charlottesville in the early Nineties). Fifty-two volumes are available as of this date (I’ve heard twenty-five of them). Today I picked Vol. 21, recorded on Aug. 4, 1995, only three months after my very first DMB concert. This was the infancy of DMB. Only fourteen hundred folks were in attendance this night at San Diego’s SOMA. It’s impossible to ignore the band’s youthfulness here. As a rock vocalist, Dave is aging well, but the Dave here on “Don’t Burn The Pig” isn’t with us anymore. On the vocally challenging “Satellite” he sounds almost teenage-like, while his sharp falsetto hits every mark on “Pay For What You Get.” These were the years before Dave became a husband and a dad, things that always change a person. But his maturation hasn’t harmed the band. There is obvious youthfulness in LeRoi Moore’s sax playing, too. As brilliant as he is on “Jimi Thing,” he only got better with age (he was considered a virtuoso by his untimely death in 2008). Departed violinist Boyd Tinsley is also in rare form here, delivering a fevered performance on “Ants Marching.” DMB has evolved stoically, even with the loss of two founding members. Still, there is nothing quite like reliving the early days, and this is the perfect collection for just that.
Pigeonhole: rock, jam band, jazz fusion
Ghost Town Blues Band, Backstage Pass (2018)
Stumbled on this Memphis band’s new single “Poor Man’s Blues” and was struck with nostalgia. They’re an old-fashioned blues band like the ones that played the small clubs I used to frequent in the Nineties. They toss in an unusual array of musical instruments, including organ, cigar box guitar, harmonica, trombone and something called an electric push broom.This live album includes several covers, including the challenging Allman Brothers tune “Whipping Post.” But their originals are the most interesting. “Tip of My Hat,” “Shine” and “Big Shirley” are all great while “Give It All Away” includes a ridiculously killer trumpet solo that’s not to be missed. Maybe my favorite original is the wonderful drinking song, “One More Whiskey.” The album wraps with a cover of Robert Randolph’s “I Need More Love,” which feels like a Blues Brothers parody, and my least favorite cut.
Pigeonhole: Blues, country blues
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate (2016)
When I acquaint myself with a new LP, I listen in order and, if I’m not sold after three or four songs, I’m finished. That’s apparently what happened when I heard this, Kiwanuka’s sophomore album (produced by Danger Mouse). I don’t really start enjoying it until the title track, the fifth song in. From that point on it’s phenomenal (with the possible exception of “I’ll Never Love”). So that’s why this album missed my top ten for 2016, although I’ve retroactively updated the honorable mention section to include it. Half of it is really incredible.
My introduction to him was last year’s incredible album Kiwanuka, which easily made my best list for the year. The texture and complexity of it blow my mind. Now, hearing this 2012 record for the first time, I find it every bit as good; a disc I’ll return to frequently, I predict. Like Kiwanuka, I hear subtleties on my second pass through I didn’t hear the first time. His voice is impeccable, always delivering perfect phrasing for every moment. “Rest” put me at peace like few songs can. It makes me wonder why I didn’t like Kiwanuka’s 2016 album, Love & Hate. My records show I listened to it, or part of it. Not sure what I didn’t hear then, but I’m going to revisit (probably tomorrow) and find out, because I may be obsessed with Michael Kiwanuka.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, indie folk
Jason Mraz, Look For The Good (2020)
After seven albums, Mraz remains a happy guy with a great voice. Apparently this is Mraz’s white-boy reggae moment, as every song has some degree of reggae influence. There are lots of simple lyrics, like “make love not war” and “I was raised to love my neighbor.” Yet there’s still something refreshing about it all. I even like “Hearing Double,” a song that could easily turn annoying, as he repeats every line twice (thus the title). But like everything Mraz offers here, it works. The album is bookended by two extremely uplifting songs, the title track and “Gratitude,” in which Mraz repeats the album’s opening lyric “look for the good.” Mraz is part owner of a restaurant a few blocks from my apartment, Café Gratitude, so perhaps you see a pattern. He is also an activist and the founder of the Jason Mraz Foundation, which supports charities in the areas of human equality, environment preservation and education.
Pigeonhole: Folk pop, reggae
Ray LaMontagne, Monovision (2020)
This is a simple, stripped down collection that gently washes over the ears and leaves a nice, soothing residue. It’s entirely a one-man show; LaMontagne does it all, the instrumentation, the vocals and the engineering. Perhaps this solitary approach was the inspiration behind the album title. There are moments reminiscent of Neil Young, and even the Everly Brothers (on “Weeping Willow”). When he sings a line that’s been sung a million times, like “Lately, it’s the mornings that I miss her most of all,” there’s something refreshing in his emotional interpretation. There’s always something deeply human about LaMontagne’s music, and this album feels like a gift to a troubled people. Particularly delightful: “I Was Born To Love You,” “Summer Clouds,” “We’ll Make It Through” and “Highway to the Sun.”
Pigeonhole: Folk rock,
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
They developed the cuts for this album at sound checks during the Contra tour. It’s considered an experimental record with extensive use of pitch shifting, which involves manipulating an original pitch higher or lower, a technique used extensively in cartoons, particularly Alvin and the Chipmunks, Tweety and Daffy Duck. Such experimentation is expected from the audiophile members that make up Vampire Weekend. The complexity and depth of this album landed it on several best of lists of the decade.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, baroque pop
Goldfrapp, Tales of Us (2013)
These are mostly trance-inducing, slow-burn ballads that deviate from Goldfrapp’s typical electronic leanings. Every song title is a given first name (other than “Stranger”), including “Annabel” inspired by a novel about an intersex child raised as a boy, and “Clay,” based on a letter written by a World War II veteran to his male lover. The album was promoted with five different short films, including a 30-minute anthology of the entire collection. Alison Gsldfrapp’s crystal clear, breathy vocals are nothing short of mesmerizing. The arrangements are fairly sparse, which gives space for Alison’s vocal range and versatility.
Pigeonhole: Synth pop, folktonica
Bessie Jones, Get In Union (2020)
Clapping. Lots of hand clapping. I guess because, when you’re a slave, you use whatever instruments you can come up with. Alan Lomax took on the project of compiling these working songs sung by Bessie Jones. The result was this sixty-song, two-and-a-half hour collection. Jones’ grandfather was brought to the New World in 1843 as a slave and fathered Jones in 1902. She was raised in the Gullah-Geechee traditions of the American south and had her first child at the age of twelve. Beginning in 1963, she was part of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which toured colleges and festivals for the better part of two decades, including performing at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Some of these songs include background chatter, of particular note is the ending of “Going to Chattanooga” where she talks about singing and “twisting” (dancing) while her parents weren’t watching.
Phoebe Bridges, Punisher (2020)
She’s only 25-years old but already Phoebe Bridges is quickly becoming a musical powerhouse. This is her second solo album in addition to her acclaimed work with BetterOblivion Community Center and Boygenius. Mostly a mix of melancholy tunes, her tender voice is accessible and appealing. The only cut that doesn’t work for me is the opener, “DVD Menu,” which feels superfluous. The next two cuts (the album’s singles) are simply incredible.
Pigeonhole: Indi rock, folk rock, emo
The National, Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
This isn’t my favorite album by these guys, but they always set a high bar for themselves. This, their sixth album, was nominated for Best Alternative album of the year behind the singles “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” Lead singer Matt Berninger’s morose and monotone vocals always work for me, whereas similar bleakness from the likes of Nick Cage or Leonard Cohen just make me want to open a vain and bleed out.
DJ Boring, Like Water (2020)
This album was released yesterday and after a couple passes I’m sold. There are some nice big electronic moments here, although there’s also some fat that could be trimmed from almost every cut. He sometimes spends a little too much time getting to the point. But overall it delivers bass-heavy, lo-fi house beats. DJ Boring is Austrian-born Londoner Tristan Hallis who, apparently, has a hot A/V set he produced with New York visual artist Amir Jahabin. It’s obvious these tunes would pair nicely with visual affects. Can’t wait for that kind of live experience in a club again, someday.
Pigeonhole: Dance, electronic
Jagwar Ma, Howlin (2013)
This debut from Australian trio Jagwar Ma delivers a steady neo-psychedelic beat likened to Primal Scream or the Stone Roses. “Come Save Me” stands out with soring vocals that could have been a Beach Boys hit in the day. The heaviest trance is courtesy of “Four,” a six-and-a-half minute, swirling mix of sound behind a deep pulse. Tasty mix of percussion and tribal beats on “Exercise.” They’ve toured in support of two other favorites: Tame Impala and The xx.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic rock, alternative dance
Rhye is the Canadian duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal. Milosh’s contralto androgynous voice could easily be confused for a woman’s, which makes the title track a bit ironic. If anything he could be compared to sultry legend Sade. The first two songs are sensual soul pop songs that set the tone for what comes next. Multiple instruments are used here, including trombone, violin, harp, flugelhorn, trumpet, clarinet, flute and saxophone. But subtle seems to be the underlying mood.
Pigeonhole: Alternative R&B, downtempo
The Brothers Johnson, Right On Time (1977)
“Strawberry Letter 23” was a quasi hit in 1977 for The Brothers Johnson. Written by Shuggie Otis, the 66-year old just released his own version of it and, I’ll be kind, it’s an admirable attempt. To truly appreciate this song, you must hear the Brothers Johnson version. Which I did, then checked out the rest of it. The opening cut “Runnin For Your Lovin” is a fun horn-backed jam. “Free Yourself, Be Yourself” is beautiful, for no other reason than its cheesiness (think theme from The Love Boat). The instrumental “Q” has some fun moments — a tinkling of a triangle, a couple killer Hammond lines. “Right On Time” couldn’t be more fun, or more dated. It doesn’t really stand up in the twenty-first century. But the Seventies were a fun time in music, and this album is proof. Otis deserves thanks for this record. As silly as it can sometimes be, it at least got me to hear “Strawberry Letter 23” for the first time in decades. There’s some similarities to Sly and the Family Stone, like “Brothers Man,” which is an incredible funky jam. “Never Leave You Lonely” sounds like a campy song from a discount wedding, but eventually evolves into a groovy jam. The record wraps with “Love Is,” a pretty dreadful ballad with an awkwardly uplifting message. As for the Brothers, Louis died in 2015; couldn’t find much info on line about George.
Pigeonhole: Funk, R&B
José James, Heaven On The Ground (2013)
He’s been called a jazz vocalist for a hip-hop generation. This is a totally laid back album, to the point of nearly inducing hypnotics. The title track is a tasty slow groove, as is the amazing “Do You Feel,” meanwhile “Tomorrow” is a bit tedious. There are two versions of “Come To My Door” (written by Emily King). James does a super groovy take, then is joined by King for an acoustic version. Both are so good I can’t pick a favorite.
Pigeonhole: Neo soul, modern jazz
Bobbie Humphrey, Dig This! (1972)
Dizzy Gillespie saw her perform in a talent show in the late Sixties and encouraged her to pursue a music career. This jazz flautist later became the first female instrumentalist ever signed to the prestigious jazz label Blue Note, and went on to perform with Duke Ellington and George Benson. I chose to feature this album, although I also heard Blacks And Blues (1999), considered her best. I actually found Dig This! more to my liking. The first two cuts have excruciatingly long intros but eventually get into a groove. It’s the third cut, an instrumental cover of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (a hit by The Undisputed Truth in 1971) that boosts the record’s credibility. “Virtue” is vintage groovy vibrations, while “I Love Every Little Thing” is a delicious flute instrumental. “Nubian Lady” is another keeper. There are no vocals here, which begs the question: how much flute music can you take in one sitting (my answer is: about an album and a half). She’s now 70 and lives in Marlin, Texas; her last studio album was released in 1994.
Pigeonhole: Jazz fusion
Phoenix, Bankrupt! (2013)
Ti Amo (2017) made my top ten list that year, and it’s better than this one, but not by much. Bankrupt! grows on me the more I hit repeat. This is their fifth album and it follows the hugely successful Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Right out of the gate it’s a big electronic explosion (“Entertainment” and “The Real Thing”) behind the familiar and wonderful vocals of Thomas Mars (husband of movie director Sofia Coppola I just learned). The title track is a marvelous electronic instrumental for the first four and a half minutes before Mars chimes in to wrap it up. I really can’t get enough of these guys.
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, electronica
LA Priest, GENE (2020)
I have varying degrees of excitement for the new music I write about each day. Even the best stuff is sometimes just okay. Other days it’s like finding a secret treasure I get to keep! Not that this album is a perfect 10 rating. In fact, most of it I’m not even that thrilled about. But the opening three cuts (and the three edited versions at the end) are absolutely awesome. Not sure I can even pick a favorite, but I’ll go with “What Moves.” “Beginning”sounds like a modern-day incarnation of the Talking Heads or Bryan Ferry. But I can’t stop listening to all three! Sadly, the album kind of falls apart after that. It’s almost like those three songs were produced by a different person than the rest of the album. The internet says: “LA Priest is the name Sam Dust, late of Late of the Pier, adopted to release his beguiling space-pop-psyche solo work following the demise of the band he founded when still in his teens.” Whatever any of that means.
Trey Songz, “How Many Times” (2020)
This single by three-time Grammy nominated artist is in response to the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Songz sings the line “How many bro thers gotta die/How many more times?” backed by a full gospel choir. No doubt a trove of music will come out of these times. This just happened to be the first one that caught my attention, and I like it quite a bit. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Black Lives Matter and the National Bail Fund Network.
Pigeonhole: RnB, soul
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go (2013)
He’s heavily influenced by classic soul and Motown, but there are cues from across the musical spectrum here, which makes this a truly unique collection. Andrew Mayer Cohen (aka Mayer Hawthorne) draws influence from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Smokey Robinson. But there are also Steely Dan moments, like “Wine Glass Woman,” and a hip-hop element (Kendrick Lamar co-wrote “Crime” and makes a cameo). All of which results in something entirely new and refreshing.
Pigeonhole: Retro soul, pop and R&B
Alec Benjamin, These Two Windows (2020)
Several of these cuts were released as singles over the last several months, all meeting with my full-throated approval. Now the balance of this record is out, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is Benjamin’s second full album and I have to say, there’s something very appealing about his vocal chops and his writing ability. I’m indifferent about only two cuts (“Must Have Been The Wind,” and “Alamo”); the rest I really, really like. This 26-year-old hails from my hometown (Phoenix, AZ) which isn’t necessarily a hotbed of musical talent, although I have high hopes for a long career in this case. (Also see M4S post 3/12/20)
Karl Bartos, Off the Record (2013)
Bartos is old school electronica. As one of the original members of the legendary German electronic band Kraftwerk, Bartos could easily be considered one of the pioneers of the genre. This is the third solo album from the now 68-year old and it definitely recalls a sound from the past. There are hints of Pet Shop Boys in songs like “Without A Trace” and “Rhythms.” “The Binary Code” sounds like a video game malfunctioning for a minute and a half, while “Musica Ex Machina” keeps a beat to what sounds like my building’s fire alarm accidentally going off. There is no new ground broken on this record. But there’s something nostalgic and charming about it, which is payoff enough.
Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else (2014)
I rounded out my Best of 2014 list (just uploaded, see tab above) with this record from an artist new to my ears. She was only 23 when she recorded this and it was her third album! She’s a youngin’ with a healthy respect for history. “Hurt So Bad” was inspired by the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose ten-year marriage ended in 1974. It’s possible even Loveless’ parents weren’t born then.
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
The stark and sometimes bleak tone of this record is established from the opening line where Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) reveals in dark overtones that “half of my whole life is done/Let it drift in wash away/It was just a dream I had/It was just a dream.” Clearly Hadreas’ lyrics have been informed by his complicated life, beginning as the only openly gay person in his high school. His fluttering falcetto at times recalls the late great Peter Buckley (“Some Dream”). There are some up moments on the album, like “On the Floor,” which are a nice mood shifts. This fifth album by Hadreas was partially inspired by his participation in a series of modern dance performances which heightened his connection between body and music.
Pigeonhole: Indi pop, baroque pop
The New Basement Tapes, Lost On The River (2014)
This supergroup of Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Middens came together to transform a collection of uncovered Bob Dylan lyrics into modern-day tunes. The lineup and the concept were enticing for sure. But not much of it works for me. I can’t blame Dylan. He only wrote the words, among millions of others. Maybe there was a reason he never developed them into songs. There are a few highlights (“When I Get My Hands On You”) but even production from the great T. Bone Burnett didn’t produce a winner.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, rock
B.B. King, Live At The Regal (1965)
There are two recordings by this blues legend considered among the greatest live performances ever released on LP. I listened to both (the other being Live at Cook County Jail), and found the sound quality far superior than what I expected from a fifty-five year old record. There’s nothing I can say about B.B. King that hasn’t been said before. My opinion is he’s a genius. He could make a guitar sing like no other and had one of the great blues voices ever. From what I’ve heard he never put on a bad show. I was lucky to see him perform a couple times. If you didn’t, this album will give you some insight into what you missed.
Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker (2014)
His sound has been compared to a match being thrown into a box of fireworks. Booker delivers sizzling guitar lines and raspy vocals on this, his debut, which has the intensity of Black Flag, the soulful vocals of Ray LaMontagne, and the blues spirit of Howlin’ Wolf. Andrija Tokic, who’s worked with the likes of the Alabama Shakes, produced this Booker album, and I hear similarities in their sounds.
Pigeonhole: Blues rock
Stereo MC’s, Connected (1992)
It’s a fair question. How did it take me this long to hear this album? I knew the hits (“Don’t Let Up” and the title track). But I had no idea the rest of it was so damn good. This could easily become an all-time favorite. These English whiz kids combine elements of early hip hop, funk and electronics to create a groove that’s deep and contagious. There isn’t a weak cut on the album, and there’s no easing of the throttle until the last cut, appropriately called “The End.” The song, and the album, end with female voices repeating in harmony “hear what I say hear what I say” and all I could think was, FUCK YES I hear. And I want to hear more.
Pigeonhole: Alt hip-hop, hip house, funk, electronica
Taylor Swift, 1989 (2014)
Many people these days are worried about opening the corona-virus economy too early. Which made my introduction to the Taylor Swift song “Out of the Woods” particularly apropos. The infectious chorus is simple and repeated in a tasty rhythm: “Are we out of the woods/Are we in the clear yet.” It’s a question on many people’s minds, for reasons different than what Tay was talking about. I like this entire album, with the exception of “Bad Blood.” As someone who has battled his share of addictions, I particularly appreciate “Clean,” about addiction to another person. I still think I prefer last year’s Lover, but only by a little bit.
Pigeonhole: Pop, synth-pop
Flying Lotus, Flamagra (2019)
Culling albums from 2014 for Best Of list. Listened to You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus. Expected great things in light of last year’s Flamagra (more on that later). You’re Dead! has its moments. “Turkey Dog Coma” really drew me in to its musical tapestry. But if there was ever an album that could be helped by a healthy dose of sativa, it’s probably this one. It’s a nice trip for sure. But I was glad when it was over. Like a buzz that’s just a little too good.
Flamagra, on the other hand, made my Top 10 List for 2019 (pre Music4Sativa) so I’ll give it some ink now because it’s nothing short of epic. Twenty-seven cuts in all, this musical odyssey from the brain of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) is not to be missed by anyone who appreciates heady music. There are some blow-your-mind cuts here (“Spontaneous,” “Takashi,” “All Spies,” “Inside Your House”). But “Fire Is Coming” may be my favorite. Half spoken word, the David Lynch-written story has you hanging on every word, particularly when the phone rings, and Tommy, the son, answers it, and says, mom it’s for you, and she says, Who is it? and Tommy says, I don’t know, some man, he said you’d know what it’s about, and then the look of concern on mom’s face and, by this time you’re so dialed into this stupid story you can’t wait to find out how it ends! I won’t tell you, although the title might give it away. This mystery segues into an incredible grove that could go on twice as long, if you ask me. “Andromeda” feels like the halfway point of the musical journey as things chill out after that. “Hot Oct.” ends the album the same way it began, with nature sounds, maybe gently burning wood? Or a steady rain? It’s hard to say for sure. But it’s mesmerizing, as is this entire album.
Pigeonhole: Electronic, jazz rap, lo-fi
The Strokes, The New Abnormal (2020)
This is my first Strokes album. I loved their hit “Reptilia” from 2003, but never did much Strokes exploring until now. This brand-new album is a force of sound and catchy hooks. Julian Casablancas demonstrates incredible talent as a singer and songwriter. There are nods to Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs, treats for folks of a certain age. A seven-year gap between Strokes records may have been helpful in developing this astonishingly solid collection. I’m not in love with “Eternal Summer,” but there’s something enticing about every other song.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, garage rock, post-punk revival
Broken Bells, After the Disco (2014)
I liked their debut album but, having now listened to its full-length studio follow-up, I hear the weaknesses. It’s not full developed like After the Disco, which utilizes a 17-piece string orchestra and a four-voice choir. The Bells is a side project of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse). I have to agree with one reviewer who said After the Discois good, not great, and feels like it could have been better than it is.
The Weekend, After Hours (2020)
There was a time when being compared to Michael Jackson would have been a complement and, in a musical sense, I think it still is. The Gloved One came to mind when I first heard Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weekend). His fourth album (my introduction) demonstrates an incredible vocal range that spans over three octaves. There are times it feels a bit over produced, but that seems to be part of his theatrics. Like the bloody gauze strip across the bridge of his nose (a prop), I guess because the music isn’t enough to grab your attention. Michael had the glove, Abel has the gauze. Let’s move on. There are numerous highlights, particularly “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes.” He already has three Grammy wins under his belt. After Hours will likely earn him others.
Pigeonhole: R&B, synth-pop
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963)
Something unexpected jumped out at me while listening to Robert Earl Keen’s live version of “The Road Goes On Forever”: The sound of a rambunctious audience enjoying live music in pre-social distancing times. It got me thinking about some of the best live performances ever released as LPs. I have plenty of favorites, but this is a blog about unheard music. So I researched the best live albums and came up with a list that I will revisit as Quarantine 2020 continues. I started with what Rolling Stone magazine says is the best live recording ever, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. When his record label refused to finance the project, Brown bankrolled it himself, and the result is a record, considered one of the most important in American history. Like the “concert” itself, the original album is only 30-minutes long, but as you might expect from James Brown, there’s not a wasted minute, all backed by a chorus of adoring fans, most of them hollering females. His call and response with the crowd, like on “Lost Someone,” was particularly nostalgic during these days of shuttered concert halls.
Pigeonhole: Soul, R&B
Cornershop, England Is A Garden (2020)
There’s something wonderfully carefree and playful about Cornershop. Sometimes they come off as a Sixties-era pop band. The Monkees could have just as easily recorded “St. Marie Under Canon,” while “I’m A Wooden Soldier” is early Rolling-Stones ready. Jangly riffs and fluttering flute lines are sprinkled about, like on the title track, with a backdrop of chirping birds and subtle percussion. Cornershop has been around since 1991 and is best known for “Brimful of Asha,” remixed by the likes of Fatboy Slim. The band’s name comes from an English stereotype for convenience store owners who are often British Asians.
Pigeonhole: Alternative dance, Britpop
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angeles (2020)
Lucinda Williams sings about pain and heartache and mistrust like they’re daily, maybe hourly, conditions. She’s a master at writing songs about things not going well. Her latest, Good Souls Better Angels, is maybe her heaviest collection yet. The 67-year-old’s legendary whisky-tarnished voice tells a story beyond the lyrics. Sometimes she confronts her demons head-on, like on “You Can’t Rule Me.” The current POTUS is the target of her daggers in “Man Without A Soul” where she sings: “You bring nothing good to this world/Beyond a web a cheating and stealing.” Williams makes sure you feel her pain on “Big Black Train,” a train she desperately doesn’t want to board, but apparently has no choice. Williams has always blurred the lines of musical genres. There’s the grungy “Wakin’ Up” and the slo-blues fizz of “Bad News Blues.” On “Shadows and Doubts” she sings about depression (of course) as the “dark, blue days” that can “crush you.” But there are always rays of hope on her records, like on “When the Way Gets Dark” when she offers her hand and pleads for us not to give up.
Pigeonhole: Country rock, alternative country
I keep seeing new songs written about the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, many of them simply titled “Quarantine.” So I decided to search the word on Spotify and found numerous choices. Benjamin Gilbbard’s “Life In Quarantine” includes the phrase: “Inside the Safeway/It’s like the Eastern Block/People have a way of getting crazy/When they think they’ll be dead in a month.” Not the best rhyme but truth nonetheless. There’s Matthew West’s country song with the line: “Quarantine life/Quarantine life/Killing that Corona with a Clorox wipe.” There’s “Quarantine” by Levitation Room with the line: “The world isn’t safe anymore, anymore/Keep your hands clean/While you’re stuck in quarantine.” And then there are some actually good songs about the dire situation, like Umphry’s McGee’s “Easter in Quarantine” with the simple yet relatable verse: “I’ll see you when I see you/On the other side/Looking for a way to wait it out/Looking for a way to make it out.” Lovely song, beautiful sax work.
Pigeonhole: Progressive rock
The last time I saw X lead singer Exene Cervenka was in concert, 1987, when she was pregnant with her now 32-year old son. A lot has happened since then, although not a lot musically, until yesterday, when the legendary punk band released Alpabetland, their first studio album in 27 years. These are quintensential X jams, most at a blistering pace, except for the spoken-word cut that ends the brief collection (27 minutes).
It’s been 14 years since the last Dixie Chicks album and the wait will continue a little longer now that Gaslighter has been delayed until summer (presumably because of you know what). As a teaser, they released “Juliana Calm Down” today, and it’s exceptional. The reference is to Emily Strayer’s daughter and is a message to all women in toxic relationships. “Put on your best shoes and strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothing to lose.” The title track to Gaslighter was released last month and it’s equally awesome, everything you’d expect from Chicks. Natalie Maines’ vocals haven’t weakened in the intervening decade plus.
I loved Jungle’s 2018 album For Ever, and am just now circling back to hear their 2014 debut. Pleased as punch to find several more gems from this English “collective,” as apparently they prefer calling themselves. At the core of this collective are childhood friends Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, both masters of electronica. Amazing vocal harmony mixes here; incredibly credited to only one person (Rudi Salmon). Love the first six songs, then things fall off. Still, there’s an incredible vibe to everything they do.
Pigeonhole: Neo soul, funk, neo disco
There is something deeply calming and peaceful about M. Ward’s latest, Migration Stories, his tenth album. By the end of the second song, “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer,” I was fully engaged in the halcyon depths. The third song, “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show,” is a particular standout. These cuts were inspired by stories of migrants, in Ward’s own country of Canada, but also in the sometimes-hostile environment of his adopted United States. It’s a subject close to his heart; his grandfather immigrated to the US in the 1920s from Mexico. Ward’s interpretation of the hundred year-old “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is particularly wonderful. Ward is also member of She & Him and folk-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk. His playing style is considered an example of American primitive guitar, utilizing fingerstyle plucking with fingernails or finger picks.
Pigeonhole: Indie folk
San Francisco DJ Justin Martin has dropped a new single, “Stay,” with great vocals and lyrics by Dalilah. This is not to be confused with the 2014 Justin Martin remix on Henry Krinkle’s single “Stay,” which is a totally different jam. Or the four other mixes of “Stay” on that Krinkle disc. I’m clearly missing something with this obsession with the word stay. Also, checked out the remixes of Martin’s 2012 Ghettos and Gardens. It’s good, not great. “Butterflies” (Cats ‘n Dogz remix) is a little redundant but okay. I have a file in Spotify titled Sex Music, where I immediately copied the Danny Daze remix of “The Gurner,” featuring Pillow Talk. “Don’t Go’” (Leroy Peppers remix) is pretty stellar, too.
Pigeonhole: House, electronica
Britt Daniel is one of my favorite voices in rock. At times the Spoon lead singer’s voice is smooth as butter, and at other times he sounds like he’s gargling gravel. Or yelling. Daniel’s knows how to let his voice convey more than just words, like on pretty much any track on They Want My Soul, the Austin band’s eighth studio album from 2014. The lead track “Rent I Pay” sets a high bar for the rest of the record, and it delivers. “Inside Out,” “Let Me Be Mine,” and “New York Kiss” are all terrific. More of Daniel’s genius can be found on his 2012 side project with the Divine Fits. “Would That Not Be Nice” is perhaps my favorite song released that year.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
Todd TerjeIt’s Album Time (2014)
This was Terje’s debut, which took him three years to create and produce, and it’s his only solo work to date. Terje is a Norwegean DJ and producer who’s a multi instrumentalist and master of all things electronica, including the arpeggiator. There’s no common thread on this album; it veers wildly between cheeky electronic play (“Leisure Suit Preben”), to full-blown samba (“Svensk Sas”), to Seventies porno soundtrack ready (“Preben Goes to Acapulco”). The only commonality is Terje’s tongue-in-cheekiness; he never takes himself too seriously. The poppy “Johnny and Mary” is a cover of a Robert Palmer song that drags a bit under the weight of guest vocalist Bryan Ferry (after a few passes, I grew to like it). Terje’s most played tune is the Daft Punk reminiscent “Inspector Norse.” If nothing else, this album is an hour’s worth of quirky dance beats and pure entertainment. Perhaps the best description of this album’s mood can be summed up in the title, and the beat, of the second to last track: “Oh Joy,” a total throwback to the gay disco floors of the late Seventies (I assume), and just a whole lot of fun to experience.
Pigeonhole: Nu-disco; electronic, exotica
Elephant StoneHollow (2020)
This fifth album from Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone incorporates East Indian instruments (sitar, table, dilruba) with mostly pleasant results. The fist two cuts are strong, the next three land rather flat. But from there things really take off as “We Cry” bleeds into “Harmonia” to elevate the album to the next level. “I See You” is a tasty slow groove (a la Tame Impala) with a nifty final minute. “The Clampdown” is a nice burn. “Fox on the Run” has some U2 elements. “House on Fire” is the album’s best, with a chord progression in the chorus that reminds me of a song I still can’t place. The final cut “A Way Home” is the weakest.
Pigeonhole: Indie, psychedelic rock
Alaina Castillo just might be the next Youtube success story, perhaps on the scale of Alessia Cara or Carly Rae Jepsen. Two years ago as a senior at a Houston high school, Castillo’s video “Sing You to Sleep” exploded on Youtube with a quick million views. Now, Spotify has signed her to its platform called RADAR, which gives developing artists publicity and support. Her debut EP The Voicenoteswas released today and all four cuts deliver. I hear echoes of King Princess, particularly on “Sad Girl.”
As a possible alternative to the Stevie Wonder suggestion for Earth Day (previous post), might I suggest ZOMA by the English band Glass Animals (2014). Several cuts transition into each other with the jungle sounds of birds and insects. The cut “Toes” was developed as a musical interpretation of the novels Heart of Darkness and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Other cuts with earthy titles like “Hazy,” “Pools” and “Gooey” further the theme of nature. If you need to chill and lower your blood pressure, ZOMA could be the perfect accompaniment. Mello nearly to the point of monotone, this album is sparse but colored beautifully with the soothing falscetto of Dave Bayley.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic, indie pop
It’s Earth Day #50, the perfect excuse to listen to Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants from 1979. In the beginning, of course, there was Earth, and so begins the album, with “Earth’s Creation,” which, thanks to crashing cymbals, suggests more of a Big Bang theory than the six-day undertaking suggested in Genesis. But that’s a bigger bite than I can chew right now. Next we hear the sounds of a newborn jungle, with bird chirps and primate screeches, as the earth, and the album, come to life (“The First Garden” and “Voyage to India.)” Wonder’s first vocal appearance isn’t until the forth cut. The only single from the album, “Send One Your Love,” has nothing to do with nature or plants or Earth, unless you count the line: “Send her your love/With a dozen roses.” One of my favorite moments is the stereo affect of a housefly in “Venus Fly trap And The Bug,” buzzing from the left to right channels. But the album is, for the most part, insufferable, with only occasional nods to interesting.
Pigeonhole: New age
Wasn’t aware of the term “blue-eyed soul” until I saw it used to describe Scottish singer/multi-instrumentalist Paola Nutini. Joe Cocker (green eyes) and Rod Stewart (brown) were early examples of this style, but it was the hazel-eyed George Michael’s Faith (1987) that became the first record by a white artist to top the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Nutini’s third album Caustic Love (2014) has several great rhythm and bluesy cuts (“Numpty,” “Looking For Something”). Nutini’s vocals are rich with emotion and power, perhaps best demonstrated on “Cherry Blossom.” Jannelle Monae offers a sweet rap on “Fashion.”
Pigeonhole: Pop rock, soul rock, folk, blue-eyed soul
In honor of today’s date, I Googled: “best albums to smoke to” and found a familiar list (Dark Side of the Moon, Beach House). Also some surprises, like a lovely disc from an Icelandic outfit called Sigor Ros. Their 1999 album Agates Byrjun (“good start” in Icelandic) is heavy on orchestration and other worldliness. The opening cut is dreamy and trance inducing, all ten minutes of it. Part of the tripiness of the collection is that it’s sung entirely in Icelandic, something rarely heard in pop music. Even Iceland’s most famous musician Bjork sings entirely in English. Sigor Ros’s lead singer Jonsi Birgisson offers mostly understated falsetto vocals and plays a variety of instruments, including the bowed guitar, a guitar played with a bow and not a bent guitar, as I initially envisioned.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, dream pop, ambient
Ed O’Brien’s debut, away from his day job as guitarist of Radiohead, just dropped and it’s everything you’d expect from a musician with his pedigree. The earlier singles are all here and great, along with five new cuts that collectively make up Earth. It’s hard to image anything pushing this out of my top ten for 2020. If there was any doubt of O’Brien’s influence on Radiohead, this album can dispel that. The blusy, Clapton-esque, “Deep Days” is infectious and incredible. “Long Time Coming” could have been a Cat Stevens single in the seventies (which is not a bad thing). “Banksters” is the best of the new ones. The only one I didn’t immediately connect with is “Sail On.” But maybe time will change that. From the earlier singles, “Shangri-La” and “Brasil” are incredible.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, electronic
It’s probably safe to say you’ve never heard anything like Fiona Apple’s brand new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. There’s no simple way to describe it other than layered and complex. There’s as much jazz influence as rock. Based on the reaction so far, it will end up as one of the top albums of the year, maybe the album of the year when it comes awards time. The main elements here are percussion, piano and Apple’s incredible voice, which seems capable of absolutely anything she dreams up. And not standard percussion, either, but found objects from her Venice Beach home where much of Bolt Cutters was recorded. These aren’t melodic tunes; there’s nothing to hum or tap your foot to. But it’s pure musical genius. Comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Tom Waits seem fair. Apple has said the album is about breaking out of your personal prison with a set of bolt cutters. She pushed her record company to release the album now, instead of October as planned, as an offering to those in lockdown. Apple credits her own pre-covid self-isolation as essential to the development of the album.
Before my Covid hiatus I posted about Beck’s 2019 album Hyperspace, which I found super enjoyable. Today I went back a few more years, to 2014, and found something even better, the absolutely incredible Morning Phase. It’s a brilliant and haunting collection, particularly when heard for the first time while wandering the barren streets of Los Angeles at what normally would be rush hour on a Friday. But today, like every other day of Lockdown, there’s little traffic and almost no one out, and those who are out are almost all wearing facemasks. When the seventh song comes on, “Wave,” it feels like a commentary on this gloomy moment. It starts off bleak and suspenseful against an orchestral backdrop, with lyrics about a “form of a disturbance.” It ends, appropriately, with the Beck singing the word isolation four times, building to a chilling crescendo. A little later, “Morning” includes the line “can we start it all over again,” which happened to be the question on everyone’s mind, in terms of opening up the economy post Lockdown. “Blue Moon” has moments of Beach Boys harmonies. “Heart as a Drum” feels like a misplaced Iron & Wine tune. I often mark times in my life with albums. This may be the one for now.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock
Ty Segall has twelve album titles to his solo career and until I started researching the best LPs of 2014, I’d never heard of him. But that year Manipulator was released, and it got a lot of attention for its delicious retro, garage band fuzziness. Segall’s throwback sound ignites a nostalgia that belies his comparative youth (26 when it was released). He’s the mastermind of everything you hear, vocals, guitar, drums, bass and keyboard. Echoes of The Yardbirds, Thin Lizzy and Bowie are numerous. Seventeen cuts makeup this double album, with many highlights, like the ferocious “The Crawler,” “Feel” (not to be confused with the sixteenth cut “The Feels”) and “Green Belly.”
Pigeonhole: Garage rock, retro rock
The Dutch deep house trio Cubicolor released their second album last month, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night, which was written and developed entirely while on a boat in Amsterdam. This sophomore effort unfolds very slowly. When vocalist Tim Digby-Bell makes his enterance (more than a minute into the second cut), I immediately hear echoes of Tyrone Lindqvist of Rufus du Sol (and again on “Wake Me Up”). This twelve-tune collection could stand a little more development; in fact I’m not sure it ever really reaches its potential. Too many moments that drag (like “Kindling”). Perhaps a producer with more imagination could have made it really pop. But there’s reason to keep watching these guys.
Obviously, something has gone terribly awry. I won’t trouble you with the details, other than to say that Covid-19 hit close to home. Both parents hospitalized, both now recovering. When I had a minute during this familial crisis, I retreated to music I already knew. I didn’t have time or focus to concentrate on new music. But I believe I’m back now, as I await the other shoe to fall.
No one can accuse Beck of being a formulaic songwriter. He’s a chameleon without a signature sound. Last year’s Hyperspace was the latest example of his experimental approach. Produced along with Pharrell Williams, these eleven songs weave a narrative backed by everything from synth-pop to Delta blues to low-fi psyhcedelia. Beck tapped into Williams’ minimalism as a producer to offset his own maximalist tendencies, resulting in a dreamy and heady collection. This isn’t exactly the most memorable of the Beck ’s albums I know. It’s not at the level of Odelay or Colours. But there’s something satisfying about each cut. Of particular note are “Stratosphere,” “Uneventful Days” and “Chemical.”
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, alt-rock
It took some time to get into Ray LaMontagne’s 2014 album Supernova. It opens with the wispy “Lavender,” inducing a trance perfect for the next cut, “Airwaves,” which moves at Jack Johnson pace. And only then does LaMontagne lift the roof off with “She’s the One.” From there, the album just blossoms for me. “Pick Up a Gun” has all the suspense of a Raymond Chandler noir. “I love you, you don’t love me.”I mean how’s it all going to end up? (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t say). Then the rocker “Julia” seems like a modern day answer to “Gloria.” But my favorite has to be “Ojai,” which is kind of the perfect Ray LaMontagne song. “Smashing” left me kinda flat. Overall, exceptional.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, psychedelic rock
Absolutely fascinating find. The late Pauline Oliveros was a composer and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music. Her album Deep Listening (1989) was recorded in a cistern fourteen-feet underground that once held two million gallons of water. The cavernous space creates a 45-second reverb, the end result being an absolutely haunting and surreal mix of sound and texture. Oliveros described deep listening as “a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” She collaborated with trombonist Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis on this improvisational collection. Deep Listening has been coupled with cuts from Oliveros’ 1991 follow-up album, The Ready Made Boomerang, and has just been released as a two-album set (although not yet available on Spotify). A word of caution: In these dark, quarantine days that can feel like the end of times, this album may induce more depression than it alleviates. If there was ever a soundtrack to a scorched earth pandemic, this could be it.
Pigeonhole: Experimental, electronic art
Before today I couldn’t have told you the difference between The War On Drugs and TV On The Radio, two bands I’ve known of for years but (thanks, I guess, to dyslexia) always mixed up. Now that I’ve listened to both their 2014 albums, I understand the vast differences. For starters, there are five main members of TOTR on Seeds (2014) while TWOD is basically one guy (Adam Granduciel; more on him in the next post). TOTR offers the more instrumentally robust of these albums, the particular standouts being “Ride,” “Could You” and the beautifully manic “Lazerray.” Seeds was kind of a tribute to their bassist Gerard Smith who died of lung cancer at thirty-six years old. This record is definitely on my list for 2014 bests.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, indie rock
Even though it was released in 2014, Lost In The Dream by The War on Drugs seems pertinent during Covid19 “lockdown.” It feels like music made in a state of depression, which in fact it was. Adam Granduciel, who is essentially The War On Drugs, battled some demons during the making of this album, which kept him in seclusion for days. He’s a one-man show, credited with about a dozen different instruments and synths. There are dark cuts (“Disappearing,” “Suffering”) which are severely hypnotic while somehow maintaining a soothing quality. This third album from TWOD is meticulously crafted, with Granduciel giving each song plenty of space to blossom.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, neo-psychedelia
The Main Thing is the fifth album from the New Jersey band Real Estate and, when it was released in 2014, was considered their most mature collection. But the quality seems to drift off the longer the album goes on, and it goes on a bit too long. Nice harmonies “Falling Down.” “Paper Cut” about being stuck in a rut, is a nice jangly pop tune. Worth a listen.
Piegeonhole: Indi rock, jangle pop, dream pop
My top albums from 2015 list is up and ready for public scrutiny. I’ll mention the last album I heard before finishing the list, Get to Heaven by English frenetic art-pop group Everything, Everything, whose sound has been compared to a riot in a melody factory. Read a reference to the band as “math rock.” Wikipedia: “math rock is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures, counterpoint, odd time signatures, angular melodies, and extended, often dissonant, chords.” Bottom line, there’s some great sound here, albeit a little scattershot. This album didn’t end up making my list, although it’s interesting enough to get honorable mention.
Pigeonhole: Art pop, indie rock, electronica
Noticed Bob Schneider was participating in the ACL Stands With Austin fundraiser to support bar and restaurant workers during the worldwide shutdown over Conva19. I’ve followed Schneider for years and seen him numerous times live. He’s without question one of my favorite songwriters/performers. I’d never really sunk my teeth into his 2013 album Burden of Proof until now. As usual, it doesn’t disappoint. There are numerous songs that meet his always high-level of marksmanship, but ’m not a fan of the entire collection. The lead track “Digging for Icicles” is a Leonard Cohen imitation that doesn’t work for me. I wish he’d ended the album with a sweet little ditty he’s so capable of writing, rather than a cover of “Tomorrow” from Annie. But I quibble.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, singer/songwriter
Danielle Balbuena (aka 070 Shake) has dropped her debut full-length album and it’s deep with incredible sound. She broke out in 2018 with collaborations with Kanye West (“Ghost Town” and “Violent Crimes”) and Pusha T. The number 070 references the zip code where Shake was raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, which she says was full of “kids on drugs.” Her Dominican mother told her she’d rather Shake be in jail than be gay (which she is). It was in this environment that Shake began creating poetry and raps. On Modus Vivendi (Latin for “way of life”), it’s her deep, raspy vocals that really make these songs pop. There is clear rap influence (“The Pines”) but 070 Shake mixes things up a lot. “Guilty Conscience,” one of her top tunes on the streaming service, is basically pop. “Rocketship,” with great beats and vocal effects, is the highlight. From her previous releases, “Honey” is powerful and infectious, featuring vocals from Ralphy River and Hack & Tree.
Footnote: This blog is intended to be exclusively about music. But the daily diary format makes it almost impossible to ignore major current events. Today is Day 1 of the Coronavirus Quarantine here in Los Angeles, so it should be easier than ever to remain dedicated to Music4Sativa, a blog I started as a distraction from the chaos in the world. And that was before the pandemic. Let’s all stay healthy and listen to more music!
Pigeonhole: Emo Rap,
The Chicago Transit Authority wasn’t exactly an instant success. Their self-titled debut in 1968 was competing with an already established experimental jazz-rock fusion ensemble called Blood, Sweat and Tears (“Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”). It took two years for the band eventually known simply as Chicago to chart with the single “Beginnings” from that debut album. Chicago got more attention after their second album (1971) with the singles “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4,” and suddenly the popularity of that two-year-old debut started to rise. It would remain on the charts for 171 consecutive weeks (a record at the time), and be considered Chicago’s best overall record. I’d heard many of these songs before, but several were new to me. An hour and fifteen minutes long, most songs are drawn out explosions of sound coupled with some of the greatest horn work in rock history. In addition to the aformentioned “Beginnings,” there are two other cuts here “I’m a Man” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” that are very familiar to people of a certain age and are still a treat to hear. Parts of this record, however, earn respect based solely on historic value and not because they hold up to modern eardrums. “Liberation” gets a little out of hand, I mean if a fifteen-minute song can get out of hand. Terry Kath’s guitar solo is almost insufferable, as he is also on “Free Form Guitar.” But these are old school guitar solos, the ones that go on minute after minute after minute with no end in sight. Spent a couple hours coursing through the Chicago catalogue and have to say, I haven’t given Chicago sufficient credit over the years. They were at times absolutely amazing, and other times unlistenable. Through the years they became over produced and poppy, like “You’re the Inspiration,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Call On Me,” all of which are pretty awful. It’s hard to believe it’s the same band, and in some cases because of personnel changes, it really wasn’t.
Pigeonhole: Jazz rock, pop rock
Ego Death was the third album from funk R&B group The Internet and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2015. Lead by songwriter and vocalist Syd Bennet, The Internet draws musical influence from many sources and brings it all together for a truly unique sound. “Special Affair,” “Go With It” and “Girl” are standouts. Jannelle Monae and Tyler, The Creator make appearances.
Pigeonhole: R&B, jazz hip hop, funk, electronic
Yesterday Alec Benjamin and today Lauv? I must be channeling a prepubescent schoolgirl. But I’ll admit it. I think both these artists are seriously talented. Lauv’s debut dropped last week and the entire hour of it is quite good. K-pop boy band BTS appears on “Who,” so the target market is clearly young and mostly female. These are all solid compositions; there are numerous sweet spots (“Who” isn’t one of them). But “Sweatpants” definitely is, as is “Mean It” and “I’m So Tired.”
Until today I was familiar with only a couple Alec Benjamin songs (“Jesus in LA,” and “Let Me Down Slowly”) but took a listen to Narrated For You (2017) and found him to be an incredible vocalist who reminds me at times of Jason Mraz. Even songs about school-boy crushes (“Annabelle’s Homework”) seem mature on a certain level. “Doesn’t matter how many papers I write/End of the equation won’t be you and I/Now I’m just another who got hurt/Doin’ Anabelle’s homework.” Before he was signed to his current record contract the Phoenix-raised Benjamin tried everything to get noticed, including playing his songs on guitar in the parking lots of Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan concerts. His new EP, The Book of You and I is another special collection of songs. It’s all a little bubble gummy at times, but that’s what you have to expect with sweet songs about young love. (Highlights: “Oh My God”).
Pigeonhole: Pop, indie
Not that I was planning on attending Coachella, but a band I would not have missed is English EDM duo Disclosure. The Grammy-nominated Caracal from 2015 was a phenomenal album that featured a bunch of guest talent, like Sam Smith, Lorde and The Weekend. Now, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence are back with another great single, the pulsating house track “Ecstasy.” It completes an EP of songs previously released as singles, all five of which are worth a listen. “Tondo” and “Etran” both employ nice African beats while “Expressing What Matters” is a clever rework of Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown,” utilizing large portions of the original song.
Pigeonhole: EDM, house, dubstep
The fallout from coronavirus continued today as both Coachella and Stagecoach were postponed until the Fall. Took a listen to several of acts that had been scheduled for Stagecoach and found the vast majority of them way too commercial and polished for my taste in country. Midland is an exception. I was familiar with their fantastic 2017 debut On the Rocks, but took a pass through last year’s Live From The Palomino. They clearly put on a great show (although the mix on this live album leaves much to be desired). Lead singer Mark Wystrach has a great country voice and their sound has been compared to legendary George Strait. They hit all the classic country themes (i.e. “Drinking Problem” and “Cheating By The Rules”).
The mother of all music conferences, South by Southwest, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus situation. Not that I’m personally affected. I attended some of the first SXSWs in the early Nineties, but it’s grown into something beyond my needs as a music fan. Curious to hear what I (and now everyone else) will be missing, I gave a listen to many of the bands scheduled and found the answer to be: not much. Incredibly, more than two THOUSAND bands had showcases scheduled. The official SXSW 2020 playlist on Spotify consists of thirteen hundred songs over eighty-three hours! With the help of shuffle play and the fast forward button, I jumped in and waited to be impressed. It was a long wait. Apparently the main qualification to be awarded a showcase is fogging a mirror. I found a couple worthy of note, including Bay-are indie pop collective Peach Tree Rascals, Nashville singer/songwriter Myylo and blues-rock guitarist Patrick Sweany. But my favorite (after more than two hours of sifting) was Sarah Shook & The Disarmers. Shook’s gritty vocals coupled with solid songwriting put this band on the map in 2015 with the album Sidelong, which earned them the label of country punk. A review in LouderThanWar said it this way: “These are songs for a community of lost souls, misfits, giving praise to misery and one finger to loneliness.” The song “Fuck Up” shows Shook at her most raw: “It’s hard to wake up in the mornin’ when I just crawled into bed/With bad memories and alcohol swimming in my head/My mama used to tell me to buck up/I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up.”
Pigeonhole: Country punk, singer/songwriter
If you search the name Daniele Baldelli on Wikipedia you won’t find anything. Instead you’ll be redirected to the page for “Afro/cosmic music” because Baldelli is considered the creator of this synth-heavy, African influenced dance music genre. I’ll let Wiki describe: “A freeform mixing style that allows for short hip-hop … as well as long, beat-matched segues; it sometimes incorporates added percussion and effects; and it permits major speed variations to force songs into a 90-110 beats per minute range.” Baldelli has been DJing in Europe since the Seventies but he’s far from washed up. There’s so much to like on his 2015 album Cosmic Drag, that is obviously retro at times and yet refreshingly new. It made a couple best of lists that year, and may make mine. There are four songs on this instrumental collection with the word “cosmic” in the title, so I guess Baldelli is trying to tell us something. It gets a little weak towards the end but the vast majority of it is fun, compelling and at times, cosmic, I guess.
Pigeonhole: Cosmo-disco, Afro-disco, synth
There’s not much left of the original Electric Light Orchestra, in fact the 2015 album Alone in the Universe finds front man Jeff Lynne the only remaining member to appear. But really Lynne was and still is ELO. He handles most of the instrumentation here, with wonderful results. This incarnation of the band is officially known as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, to differentiate it from the tribute and imitation bands in circulation. This is ELO’s thirteenth album and Lynne’s voice, sixty-seven years old and counting, is unencumbered by the years. When the original band disbanded in 1986, Lynne became highly sought-after as a producer and worked for the likes of Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. He produces here on this disc, as well.
Big Gigantic out of Boulder, Colo., has released their seventh album, Free Your Mind, which builds on my already warm and fuzzy feelings about them. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken are joined by a slew of talented vocalists for this celebration of self-love and humanism. The title track (featuring vocalist and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick) launches this solid collection of which the highlights are numerous (“Where I Wanna Be,” “Baad,” “Let The Speakers Blow,” “Burning Love”). My favorite might be the hot dance song “Higher.” They’re currently on tour with a 3D stage show (glasses provided) that’s part movie part concert.
I made it sixty-one days, blogging every day about new music that found its way to my ears. But the streak ends there, thanks to a hectic work schedule that consumed the better part of four days. I believe I’m back on track, but only time will tell. To fill the gap in the MarchPosts playlist, I’ve uploaded four songs from my 2019 Best Of list: “Castaway” from Yuna, “Living Mirage” by Head and the Heart and “Up All Night” by Sault.
For my money, Rufus Wainwright hits more than he misses, although I understand his nasally vocals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. His last great album (my opinion) was Release the Stars (2007), so there’s great anticipation for Unfollow the Rules,due out next month. In the meantime, the second single (“Damsel In Distress”) was just released and it finds Wainwright as vocally impassioned as ever. Coupled with “Trouble In Paradise” (released last October), these teasers portend good things to come.
If Green Day had the quintessential musical statement during the George W. Bush era, then maybe the Drive-by Truckers have just offered the same for the times were in now. The Unraveling touches on opioids, babies in cages, white supremacy and church shootings, all of which sounds very current. There is no title track to The Unraveling, although “21st Century USA” goes a long way to explain the mood of this album. “If Amazon can deliver salvation/I’ll order it from my phone.” Like many alternative country acts, the Truckers record this album entirely in analog. I’m intrigued by their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera, that apparently weaves the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd into a narrative about a fictitious band. I’ll get around to that one some day. Still trying to fall in love with the Truckers, but am very much in like with them.
Pigeonhole: Alt-country, southern rock
New single by Phoebe Bridges “Garden Song” continues a long string of solid sound from her, both solo and collaborative. She made a big splash as lead vocalist of Better Oblivion Community Center, which released several nice songs last year including “Dylan Thomas” and “Exception to the Rule.” In 2018 she was part of supergroup boygenius (with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) and appeared on Ethan Gruska’s solo album on “Enough for Now,” touted on this page previously. Will find time to hear Bridges’ only full-length album, Stranger in the Alps (2017). I expect I’ll hear great things.
Pigeonhole: Emo, indie rock, folk rock
Scratched the surface of the The Chemical Brothers’ catalogue and now realize thy make an incredible sound. The British electronic duo, along with the likes of Fat Boy Slim and Prodigy, are considered the pioneers of big beat dance music. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons (not brothers) have been working together for twenty-eight years and remain fully relevant today. Heard both Born in the Echoes (2015) and Dig Your Own Hole (1997) and found both incredibly powerful. There are further depths to plumb for sure.
Pigeonhole: Electro dance, house, big beat,
Even though I’ve known the name David Allan Coe for decades, I know almost none of his catalogue, and I was once pretty dialed in to country music. Listened to his 16 Biggest Hits (1975) and found the great “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (more on that in a sec). But almost none of the rest of it was recognizable. “Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile” I know (by somebody else) and this version is just rubbish, as is “Tanya Montana.” Really none of these songs hold up, although he sure does have the perfect country voice. But he’s such a corndog, even for country music. Some of it is just ridiculous, like “Now I Lay Me Down to Cheat.” If these are truly David Allan Coe’s greatest hits, I guess I haven’t been missing much. “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” was written by John Goodman and the legendary John Prine, although Prine later asked to be UNCREDITED for his part in this song, because he thought it was “goofy” and a “novelty.” And it was Coe’s biggest hit! I’m sure Coe had other quasi hits after 1975, but I’m not that interested in finding them.
Arlo Parks is a musician and poet from South London who is predicted to be a breakthrough artist this year according to a BBC poll of music critics. She’s nineteen-years old (half Nigerian, a quarter Chadian and a quarter French) and credits Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Fela Kuti as her writing inspirations. Her single “Eugene” dropped earlier this month and is yet another in a string of really good and fairly obscure songs by her. Parks is best known for the 2019 single “Cola,” which is “a reminder that betrayal is inevitable when it comes to pretty people that think flowers fix everything.” Last year she and English alternative band Easy Life released a sexy alt-R&B song called “Sangria” which is definitely worth a few listens. Arlo Parks seems on the verge of something, so stay tuned.
Pigeonhole: Indie-pop, bedroom pop, indie folk
Having no idea what I was getting into, I queued up the HBO hour-long documentary Songs from The Golden One, and ended up in a stew of contradictory emotions. Whitmer Thomas is a 30-year-old comedian and musician from Alabama who narrates this story as part stand-up and part concert. The stage portion is shot at the Flora-Bama Lounge, where his late mother always dreamed of playing with her band, but never did. He definitely knows how to keep an audience mesmerized. And the soundtrack isn’t bad, either. It kicks off with the line: “It fucking hurts to be alive/All the disposable fragility of life.” Which doesn’t sound all the comical, and truthfully neither is much of his stand-up, once you realize his stories about abandonment through flight and death are all true. The term Golden One is apparently how his mother referred to him just before she died. “Dumb and in Love” (a la Khalid’s “Young, Dumb and Broke”) is the most approachable of these songs, but it’s all very listenable. “Partied to Death” tackles his reluctance to imbibe in substances in light of his mother drinking herself death, as he says. His vocals occasionally tread in Lou Reed and David Bowie territory, like “The Codependent Enabler.” None of them are laugh-out-loud funny, with the exception of “Eat You Out.” But even then, you’re left feeling kind of sad for this guy, even though he’s comes off quite lovable, honest and kind.
Pigeonhole: Emo, neo-punk, synth rock
Moses Sumney’s græPart 1 has just dropped as the first half of a 20-song opus (the other half due out in May). Splitting the release in two seems wise. This is smart music that needs to be processed. Already there’s talk of it contending for album of the year. As produced pieces of music, there are cuts here that rival Radiohead’s best work (see “Neither/Nor”).Vocally, Sumney is as versatile and fresh as Britney Howard with avocal range that’s mind boggling. But he seems most comfortable in a crystal clear falsetto. “Gagarin” is especially heady. Yuri Gagarin, whom I assume is Sumney’s inspiration here, was a Soviet cosmonaut and fist human to enter outer space (1961) and make a complete orbit of Earth. Just as this song seems to fade out, it’s resurrected to the sound of blowing wind and birdcalls. Gagarin later died in a routine training mission, which maybe informed the lyric: “I gave my life to something/Something bigger than me.” It’s an amazing piece. As are “Virile,” “In Bloom” and “Polly.” There are several short clips on the album which aren’t so much songs but statements, like “also also also and and and” where Sumney speaks the lines: “I insist upon my right to be multiple/Even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity,” and he adds, “What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.” Which perhaps is addressing the curiousity about his sexuality (he describes himself as “aromantic” or free from the desire for romance). For me, Sumney is intriguing on many levels as he positions himself to become one of the important voices of modern music. Expectations are sky high for Part 2.
Pigeonhole: lo-fi, electro soul, art rock
Mother Earth’s Plantasia (1976) is an electronic album by Mort Garson which I stumbled on while shuffling through the High Maintenance playlist on Spotify. As if that album title wasn’t charming enough, there’s a subtitle: Warm Earth Music for Plants… and the People Who Love Them. This forty-six-year old album was given away free with the purchase of houseplants at a long-defunct Los Angeles store called Mother Earth, known then as a counter-cultural hangout. These compositions were meant for the listening pleasure of houseplants, in the wake of the huge success of the book The Secret Life of Plants (1973). Maybe I’m part houseplant because it was pretty easy to slip into a good mood while listening to this trippy collection of melodic tunes. The range of emotions goes from peppy to jovial. Garson worked with the likes of Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee and Doris Day before the invention of the first synthesizer, the moog, which he uses on this album with wonderful results. Songs have titles like “Ode to an African Violet” (incredible), “Symphony for a Spider Plant” and “Concerto for Philodendron & Pothos.” Could it all be any more precious? The intended audience here is vegetation (in more ways than one). It definitely passes the modern-day chill test. Just ask the asparagus fern in the corner.
Pigeonhole: Electronic, experimental, ambient
Patrick Droney is a relative unknown despite “High Hopes” notching over eight million listens to date. But his obscurity should soon be a thing of the past based on the six songs streaming right now, including “The Wire,” just released today. I saw a comparison to John Mayer, which might be a little premature, although Droney definitely has the chops and looks. This soulful pop feels Nashville influenced, with hints of country, rock and blues. Droney’s first album came out when he was sixteen and around that time supposedly “toured” with legends B.B. King and James Brown, although can’t find any specifics. He shares writing duties here with Kevin Griffin (formerly of Better than Ezra), and it’s a partnership that feels very fruitful going forward. Pretty excited about this find!
Pigeonhole: pop-rock, blues-rock
Stumbled upon the brother and sister duo Angus & Julia Stone and found their 2017 full-length album Snow thoroughly enjoyable. The Stones have won several Australian versions of the Grammy Award, but their American exposure has been limited to appearances at Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. “Sleep Alone” is a real standout. It’s a quiet little journey with Julia’s baby girl voice leading to a terrestrial ending, trailing off to a drumbeat that lasts nearly a minute. Also really enjoyed “Chateau,” “Snow” and “Nothing Else.” Then, then, then! It got better. Gave Down The Way (2010) a spin and, boy it’s wonderful, particularly a huge section of the middle. The opening tracks (“Hold On” and “Black Crow”) are fine, but they seem to only offer momentum for what’s to come. Starting with “For You,” this album gets really good. “Big Jet Plane” is wonderfully and the only recognizable song. “Draw Your Swords” is chillingly beautiful while “Walk It Off” is a great piece about having the last laugh in a dysfunctional relationship. A very victorious feel to it.
Walk it off now You can tell them all how much I let you down Walk it off dear Standing here with your tail between your legs
Pigeonhole: Lo-fi, chill, folk rock
What better time than now for Green Day to offer a sequel to American Idiot, the 2004 album (turned musical) that so brilliantly addressed an era when wars were started on false premises and imbeciles ran the government. But that’s not what Green Day did on their new, Father of All Motherfuckers. This isn’t a statement album. Fans who like Green Day because they’re in your face and offer no apologies should like what they find here. In fact, there aren’t many surprises to this, their thirteenth album. It’s still don’t-give-a-shit rock n roll. This rapid-fire, post-grunge collection makes its point in just over twenty-six minutes, spits a loogie in defiance, then storms off. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and his mates seem to defy age, hitting hard with songs like “Stab You In The Heart” and the title track. “Oh Yeah” might sound familiar to people of a certain generation. It samples Joan Jett’s 1980 version of “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” a song (I didn’t realize) that was originally released by English glam rocker Gary Glitter, who was later convicted of rape (which makes the title even creepier). Proceeds from the song are being donated to a sexual assault victims organization. Green Day will probably become the Rolling Stones of their era, a band that defies age, keeps giving fans what they want, and never goes away. More power to ‘em!
Pigeonhole: Rock, grunge
Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien will release the solo album Earth this April under the name EOB. If the three singles are any indication, it should be a mighty delicious collection. The latest release, “Shangri-La,” is ripe with layered hooks and feels very much in keeping with Radiohead’s aura. “Brasil” (the Portuguese spelling) was released last December and is really two different songs, a methodic acoustic half with unfiltered vocals that leads into a pulsating electronic second half. The trippy and psychedelic “Santa Teresa” was the first single (last October) and is so soothing it’d be perfect while getting a massage in a med spa. O’Brien is credited with most of the instrumentation on these cuts. He worked with legendary English producer Mark “Flood” Ellis and engineer Catherine Marks here. Can’t wait for the rest of it.
Pigeonhole: Alt-rock, electronic, experimental
Hearing “Enough for Now” by Ethan Gruska on this day, when I’m feeling particularly self-reflective, felt very on the nose. The chorus seems to have the perfect answer to the question: Am I okay with where I am right now?
Maybe I’ll try Maybe I’ll die trying To let this be enough For now I won’t wish for better luck
Being content with the way things are is such a nice idea, particularly when sung so convincingly. This duet with singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is by far the highlight on En Garde, which was just released in January. Gruska’s father is Emmy-nominated composer Jay Gruska, who scored for such television shows as Charmed and Supernatural. And (get this) Ethan’s maternal grandfather is the legendary film composer John Williams. This is Gruska’s debut album, after collaborating last year on a project with Fiona Apple. With all that star power behind him, maybe Ethan’s next stab at a solo effort will grab me more.
Pigeonhole: Indie-pop, indie-folk
When I think of grunge granddads Stone Temple Pilots the last thing that comes to mind is ballads and flute solos. But there’s plenty of both on their newest release Perdida. Translated from Spanish, perdida means “lost,” which naysayers might see as an appropriate description for this latest effort. But for me, it delivers far more than I would have predicted. I like STP when they’re in full head-banging mood, like “Vasoline” or “Interstate Love Song.” But they seem far more comfortable at this quieter pace than I would have guessed. There are more surprises on this eighth STP album than just the flute, like violins, cellos and even a fretless zither. If you try and forget that you’re listening to the Stone Temple Pilots, and all the preconceived notions that come with that, this is an enjoyable collection. “She’s My Queen” and “Sunburst” are notable standouts. STP is on their third lead singer (Jeff Gutt) and he does an admirable job. But can anyone really replace the late great Scott Weiland?
Pigeonhole: Alt-rock, grunge
One of my favorite newcomers last year was the 21-year-old genderqueer artist Mikaela Straus, otherwise known as King Princess. I found each cut on her full-length LP Cheap Queen really good. Two years ago her career took off with her first-ever single “1950.” When Harry Styles (formerly of One Direction) mentioned the song in a tweet, King Princess went viral and quickly found herself on Colbert and SNL. The deluxe version of Cheap Queen came out yesterday and includes five unreleased songs, including “Ohio,” a heartache ode to a lover who has moved away to the Buckeye state. I’m still waiting for these new songs to grab me, like pretty much everything else did on Cheap Queen. At less than two minutes, one feels unfinished (“All Dressed in White”) another just falls flat (“Back of a Cab”). “Best Friend” is the best of the four, but doesn’t add anything to the brilliance of the original thirteen-song collection of Cheap Queen. She’s still a budding superstar, far more interesting to me than Billie Eilish, who’s taking up most of the oxygen in the young female category these days.
Pigeonhole: Indie-pop, pop-rock
The new album from house giant Tame Impala was slated for release almost a year ago, but a last-minute decision was made that it needed more work. The release was aborted, a listening party was held and the feedback was used to make adjustments. If the single “Borderline” is any indication, the delay and tinkering didn’t help. Last year’s “Borderline” is much stronger than the one released today on The Slow Rush. It’s thinner and not as robust as the 2019 single. This is the forth album from the Australian mastermind of Tame Impala, Kevin Parker. Expectations were unrealistically high after the huge success of 2015’s Currents. But the new album often feels like background music. The lone standout for me is “Lost In Yesterday,” which is very much in keeping with the Tame Impala sound of the past. I’ll keep giving the rest of it a chance.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic, experimental
Not sure yet if I love Shamir yet but found most of Ratchet compelling. It kept my attention, start to finish, so that’s something. This Vegas lo-fi indie artist was barely twenty when this came out, and he’s since released three other albums. I started here since it made a few top albums lists for 2015. Several highlights, but I’ll call out “Head In The Clouds,” because it’s a truly killer dance jam. I’ll take another pass, when I’m not so tired.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, electronic, hip house
Moses Sumney’s new single “Cut Me” just dropped and it’s another incredibly complex piece from this emerging superstar. This is the fourth song to be released from his upcoming double album, which Sumney has described as “a patchwork about grayness.” “Cut Me” is a multi-dimensional song, textured with a horn section and violin, and shows off his incredible voice, particularly in falsetto. Prince was arguably one of the greats of his time and for some reason it seems like Moses Sumney has arrived to carry on where Prince left off. Not that there’s much similarity in their music. But Prince was groundbreaking, he did things musically that no one else could do. The same is true about Sumner and his unbridled musical imagination.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, electro-soul, folk art rock, baroque pop
Caroline Polachek was brought to my attention originally through the incredible song “Go As A Dream.” Now, hearing the rest of Pang and discovering the true depth of Polachek’s talent. This former member of Chairlift has trained with opera and baroque vocal coaches, which might explain some of her vocal dexterity. There are times (“Look At Me Know”) when the music feels almost superfluous because her voice is so intoxicating. The title tack sounds like what a pangshould sound like, a persistent ping with sudden and periodic explosions. Like hunger pangs or love. The haunting “Insomnia” is simply otherworldly. Maybe the best example of her boundless range is “Caroline Shut Up.” There is nothing I can say about a song like “Door” that wold do it justice. I can’t even pick a favorite line, so I’ll go with this one: “The door slams hard behind you/When you leave the house of judgment.”The production genius of this collection also can’t be understated. There are moments that sound fully orchestrated while other times the production is noticeably sparse. The album ends with a song called “Parachute,” which offers the sense of slowly being let back down to earth. This collection is so beautiful, and the ending so apropos, it just might make you weep. I can tell by her description in “Parachute” that she’s probably talking about the same place I went skydiving, near Camarillo. This imagery is so lovely it’s like taking the jump all over again. Polachek also produced this record, so her musical instincts are apparently limitless. There’s more to explore! Polachek has also recorded under the names Ramona Lisa and her initials CEP which will certainly get a listen soon.
Pigeonhole: Electropop, art pop, indie pop
I claim to be a huge Wilco fan although I have to confess before tonight I had never heard Star Wars. I’m an old school Wilco fan. I’ve been listening to these guys since they were Uncle Tupelo. They’ve always been an abundantly talented group of songwriters and musicians, even though there are times they lose me. I checked out after 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which is among my favorite records ever. But the follow-up album didn’t grab me. And I can’t warm up to last year’s Ode to Joy (which is anything but joyfull). Schmilco from 2016 had some moments, but often left me emotionless. So I’m thrilled to find Star Wars because it sounds like the Wilco I fell in love with. There’s a splendid surprise around every corner. “Random Name Generator” is among the best songs Wilco has ever recorded (and that’s a damn long list), while “You Satellite” is equally extraordinary and could just as easily be Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground I’m hearing. The way Tweedy builds the tension over five minutes is pure genius. “Pickled Ginger” is a guitar lovers wet dream. “Cold Slope” is yet another classic Wilco tune. It’s only a thirty-three minute album, but a lot happens in a short time. Maybe someday the boys will get back to this kind of sound.
Pigeonhole: Alt-rock, alt-country, art rock, experimental
I wasn’t overly familiar with Britpop group Blur until today. I liked a few of their singles over the years, specifically “Song 2” and “Girls and Boys.” When it came to the old rivalry between the two Brit heavy weights of the Nineties, Blur and Oasis, I guess I was on team Oasis. But took a listen to Blur’s 1994 record Parklife and found it utterly satisfying. Damon Albarn is an incredible vocalist and he brings added texture to these songs even when he’s essentially screaming. Certain cuts are instantly lovable, like “London Loves” and “Tracy Jacks,” both perfect mixes of jangly guitar and delicious synth. “To The End” flirts with excess (a string section and French backing vocals) but ultimately pays off. My original intent was to hear Blur’s 2015 The Magic Whip,which I eventually did. It followed a twelve-year recording absence and materialized in Hong Kong (thus the Chinese lettering on the cover) after the band was stranded there following a cancelled festival appearance. There’s a lot to like here, particularly “Go Out” and the breezy “Ong Ong.” Albarn is busy with his other project, the “virtual band” Gorillaz, which is releasing one song a month this year. “Momentary Bliss” featuring rapper Slowthai came out a couple weeks ago and it’s, ah, fine. Having said all this, Parklife is what I’ll return to most going forward.
Pigeonhole: Britpop, indie rock
Thrilled that Christine and the Queens have released a new single, “People, I’ve been sad.” Her 2018 album Chris was probably my favorite record of that year and this new single picks up seamlessly from there. Her crystal clear vocal mixes are as wonderful as ever, and again finds her transitioning between French and English. Her melancholy take on the world feels heartfelt. Also familir is her call-and-response with the background singers. This new tune leaves me anxiously awaiting the new, full-length album to follow.
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, electropop
Twenty-three year old Alexander Crossan better known as British electronic producer and musician Mura Masa released his second album, R.Y.C., today. There are times I feel two generations removed from the message here, but I love it just the same. There’s plenty of generational content that’s not meant for people my age. “Everybody do the no-hope generation/The new hip sensation craze sweeping the nation.” Or: “We’re missing out/So young and full of doubt.” And again in the spoken-word song “a meeting at an oak tree” (all lower case), where tells a story about getting caught sneaking into his girlfriend’s room, then leaves through the bedroom window when her dad comes in and moments later calls from down the street saying, “come as soon as possible and please bring me a banana.” Relatable if you’re in high school, I guess, but the songs pull me in. Particularly like the contributions by female vocalists. “In My Mind” is a wonderfully trippy song powered by a pleasant pulse. The single “Teenage Headache Dreams” is a duet with Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice, and is wonderful. The final cut “nocturne for strings and a conversation” (also all lower case) is like feeling morphine kick in. It eases the listener out of one experience and into some other dimension. A quick pass through Mura Masa’s only other record, released when he was eighteen years old, did nothing for me. He’s come a long ways in five years.
Pigeonhole: Nu-disco, Alte R&B
This is why I comb through records, year by year, to see what I missed while I was busy doing other things. Ludic Navarre came to my attention today now that 2015 is my current year in review. Better known as St. Germain, this French DJ and producer has been melding nu jazz and house since the early Nineties. This self-titled album was heavily influenced by the music of Mali and for lack of a better description it could be categorized under deep house. The use of exotic instruments and multi-cultural inflences make this unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Jazz elements with African percussion beat, this album features kora (a Mandinka harp built from a small calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin) a n’goni (a West African lute guitar), with electronic sequences and layers. The opening track “Real Blues” features the great blues legend Lightin’ Hopkins on vocals. “Hanky-Panky” follow with a nice east Indian flavor. There’s a short calming moment at the beginning of “Family Tree,” a nearly eight-minute piece, before a male voice pours a sweet chant on top of a gathering beat. “Mary L” starts like a horror flick then segues into another smooth after-hours jazz vibe. I can’t say enough about this album. But I’ll stop for now.
Pigeonhole: Nu-jazz, downtempo, deep house,
Noticed the name C.W. Stoneking on the Troubadour schedule and, being unfamiliar, I went directly to the ol’ music library in my pocket. Turns out Stoneking is quite the big deal in his native Australia. The 45-year-old “neo” blues singer and guitarist could easily be confused with the Delta bluesmen of the twenties or thirties. There are moments on Gon’ Boogaloo (2014) where he seems to channel the great blues legend Robert Johnson. He tours with a clever mix of tuba, cornet and trombone. This record was recorded in only two days and is simply Stoneking on guitar accompanied by bass, drums and backing vocals, all of them huddled around two microphones. Tom Waits and Leon Redbone came to mind at times. But despite all the apparent influences, there’s something refreshing unique about Stoneking. This feels like a dying genre, so it’s nice to see someone still breathing life into it.
Just found out the legendary Sleepy LaBeef died the day after Christmas at the age of 84. There was nobody else quite like Sleepy LaBeef. He was the Jerry Lee Lewis of guitar. An old-time rock ‘n’ roller (his first single was in 1957), LaBeef was a little bit rockabilly, a little bit honky-tonk and a whole lot of fun. His massive frame (6-foot-6) and a booming bass voice took over any room he played. He released some wonderful studio albums, the 1994 Strange Things Happening being the best. But his true genius was on stage. The 1987 live recording Nothin’ But The Truth remains one of my all-time favorites and includes the delightful (and perhaps autobiographical) “Boogie and the Wayside Lounge.” Of course time is a cruel beast. I listened to the soundtrack from the 2013 documentary Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again, also a live recording but lacking the punch of the 1987 show. His last studio album Rides Again from 2012 demonstrated how things had changed. Despite health problems, he was gigging right up to the end. His last performance was four months before he died. Saw him in a small bar in Tempe, AZ, sometime in the late Eighties and will never forget it. RIP sir.
Pigeonhole: Rockabilly, honky-tonk, country rock
Again, no politics here. But I’m fascinated by the drama of the moment in Beach Boys land, specifically that the Mike Love-led Beach Boys are scheduled to play a convention for a group that promotes trophy hunting, which has Brian Wilson in a tizzy and asking people to sign a petition to stop the concert. That’ll be a fun one to watch, but in the meantime it reminded me to return to The Smile Sessions, a box set from 2011 that includes the legendary recordings from the late Sixties which were never officially released. There are plenty of extras included here, and totals forty cuts in all. At two hours and twenty minutes, it needs to be heard in installments. Entirely written and produced by Wilson, it is a fascinating collection of sound, some of it ambient, some of it found, some of it studio chatter. Other than the ubiquitous “Good Vibrations,” most of these songs are obscure to the casual listener. I’m not a huge Beach Boys fan but every time I hear them I’m amazed at what they could do, particularly vocally. Sometimes like a dream, sometimes like a circus, The Smile Sessions is ultimately complex and delightful. But Smile for me is like a great novel that I only need to read one time. That said, it should be heard by anyone interested in music and the history of rock. I now feel compelled to hear Smiley Smile (1967), the official Beach Boys record from those sessions, as well as Wilson’s 2004 Brian Wilson Presents Smile, which is his fresh take on the original instrumental and vocal arrangements.
Pigeonhole: Rock, pop rock, surf, psychedelia
I loved Amber Mark’s 2018 EP Conexão and am stoked to hear her new single, “Generous,” picks up right where she left off. It’s a sexy bedroom groove that references 50 Shades of Grey and kicks off with the line: “First let me give your eyes a taste/Of what’s underneath this lingerie.” Comparisons to the legendary Sade could certainly be forgiven and were perhaps fueled by her cover of Sade’s “Stronger than Pride” on Conexão. A fan of the legendary composer Henry Mancini, Mark wanted to sample his work and does so here with a snippet from “Lujon.” A gifted songwriter, producer and performer, it feels like Mark is just getting started. She’s booked at Coachella this spring.
Pigeonhole: R&B, alt-R&B
My introduction to DMA’s came today with two just-released singles. Instantly drawn in by the throb beat of “Life Is a Game of Changing,” which eventually builds into a soaring dance number. The other single (“Silver”) took a moment to come together but it eventually did, thanks to a catchy chorus. DMA’s is a three-piece rock band formed in 2012 in Sydney Australia. Before now their best-known song was “Delete,” a simple acoustic guitar arrangement paired with the gentle vocals of Thomas O’Dell. The comparisons to Liam Gallagher of Oasis are definitely warranted. DMA’s only full-length record came out in 2016 and feels poppier, but still worth a listen. Heard some Matthew Sweet in O’Dell’s vocals on the opening track “Dawning.” Their rendition of Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” from last year’s MTV Unplugged session is terrific, as is their incredible cover of Cher’s “Believe” on the Australian radio show Like A Version (available only on Youtube, that I could find). Hmmm. A band that covers gay icons like Cher and Madonna might be signaling something. Or maybe nothing at all. Who am I to say. I’m just glad the DMA’s are now on my radar.
Brittany Howard’s debut solo album Jamie is an incredible collection from the former front of the Alabama Shakes. It seems the Shakes may be done shaking now that Howard’s getting widespread acclaim as a solo artist, in addition to working with two other bands, the Bermuda Triangle Band and Thunderbitch. The wonderfully aggressive “13thCentury Metal” is like a manifesto of hope. “We are all brothers an sisters” she repeats over and over, becoming gradually more insistent as the buzzy background builds. “Goat Head” was inspired by an incident in her childhood. She was raised in Alabama by a white mother and a black father. One night the family’s car tires were slashed and an actual head of a goat was left in the back seat. The album was titled for Howard’s late sister. The two girls were very close when Jamie tragically died at thirteen of retinoblastoma, a rare pediatric eye cancer. Howard has a lot to say on this album. “Stay High” is perhaps my favorite Howard song ever, not to mention the perfect song for a toke (“I already feel like doing it again”). “We smile and laugh and jump and clap/And yell and holler and just feel great.” Amen sister! This album cements Howard’s place amongst the great talents of the last decade.
Somehow it’s been thirty-six years since the Pet Shop Boys hit it big with “West End Girls” and there’s no sign of them slowing down. Hotspot is the British synthpop duo’s fourteenth album and it’s vintage Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe. One reviewer lauded its “potential joy amid a backdrop of dread.” Which I guess has been the Boys’ tenor all along. The slow-motion “You Are the One” is a sweet love song enriched by the clarity of the sixty-five year old Tenant’s vocals. The single “Dreamland” is a collaboration with fellow English electropop Olly Alexander from Years & Years and enjoyed some crossover success late last year. There are weak spots (“Hoping for a Miracle”) but for the most part there’s a lot more to like than not here. The Boys have always had a significant gay following and it’s nice to see a tip of the hat on songs like “Wedding in Berlin,” where an infectious dance beat is interrupted with sporadic traditional organ chords of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” to the lyrics “We’re getting married/A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.”
Sexy new single by Bronze the Whale dropped today with an extra special soothing groove. “Austin Is Fading” shows off this indie duo’s electronic scope. Gave a listen to their last full-length LP The Shape of Things and found it a chill and enjoyable ride for the most part. “Cruising” kicks things off with a sweet synth beat over soaring vocals. They utilize a nice voice box effect on “Patterns” which was a nice throw back to the Peter Frampton days.
And since I’ve wandered accidentally into a disco moment, I’ll mention De Lux, a post-disco DIY duo from Los Angeles. A couple weeks ago they released the single “Cool Up” which really struck a retro chord with me, so I anxiously checked out their full-length More Disco Songs About Love, and found a few nice moments despite the ridiculous song titles. There are times when the comparison to the Talking Heads and David Byrne seems fair, like in “Writing Music,” or the most-recent single. Still, it might be a little premature to bring up such legends.
Call it manipulative marketing but releasing Poolside’s latest single in the middle of winter is kind of brilliant. “Around the Sun” is happy and harmonic and ultimately transported me to a Malibu beach party in July. Even the band’s name feels summery. I liked it so much I rushed over to check out their 2012 debut Pacific Standard Time and found it an incredible display of electronica. DJ Jeffrey Paradise and bassist Flip Nikolic said they wanted to make a “groovy, daytime disco album.” While I’m not sure how disco is different in the daytime, I can’t argue with the motivation, or the outcome. “Can’t Get You Off My Mind” is even sprinkled with what sounds like breaking waves, or perhaps that’s just where my brain took me. Can’t wait to hear “Golden Hour” at the beach sometime soon. Other highlights include “Between the Dreams,” “Why You Wanna,” “California Sunset” and “Lightenup,” although all of it is wonderful. I don’t always love covers, particularly without a fresh take. But Poolside’s cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is a phenomenal interpretation of an already brilliant song. No doubt long-time fans are thrilled to have “Around the Sun” while they eagerly await what is soon to be a new full-length record.
Wandering the vinyl section at Amoeba’s in Hollywood and randomly picked up Weighing of Heart by Nabihah Iqbal. Never heard of this British-Pakistani producer, nor by the stage name she once used, Throwing Shade. This record from 2017 offers a super cool indie electronic sound behind new wave-ish beats. Particularly enjoyed “Zone 1 to 6000″ and its sober take on the monotony of life (“Escape on Friday, get caught on Monday.”) Sadly I can’t find an explanation for the term Zone 1 to 6000. The opening track, “Eden Piece,” is a dreamy piece with subtle piano tappings. Iqbal appears to be somewhat influenced by New Order (see “Saw U Twice”), or at least I was pleasantly taken in that direction. Full disclosure, I didn’t buy the vinyl version, although the cover is stunning in its simplicity and was the reason I picked it up in the first place.
Bob Mould has released nine full-length records since the last time I paid attention to him. The two records he did with Sugar in the mid Nineties remain among my all-time favorites. But the only solo album of his I was aware of until tonight was Black Sheets of Rain, which didn’t grab me like his Sugar songs did. Gave a listen to Mould’s 2016 Patch The Sky and was pleasantly surprised to hear Bob can still destroy it on guitar. His rifts are so unmistakabley Bob Mould they might even be thought of as formulaic. But hard driving, distorted guitar jams are his thing. Conversely his vocals can feel almost comforting at times against a backdrop of such pounding rhythms. He has one speed: blistering (with a couple exceptions). But that’s why his fans love him. We want red meat and Bob Mould (still) delivers.
I glanced at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival (M3F) lineup with particular interest since it’s held in my hometown (Phoenix) and seems to get bigger every year. Not that I’ll ever go back and attend. My days at huge music festivals are probably over. I love hearing bands live, but everything else involved in getting there and out sounds like a royal pain. Plus, my home is comfy and my headphones are good so I can have an amazing musical experience without leaving my apartment. Like I did today, listening to Set In Stone by Stick Figure, who are scheduled at M3F along with Bon Iver, Rufus du Sol and a bunch of others. I picked this 2015 record because most of the top songs on Spotify are from it (and not last year’s Word on Fire). I soon found out why. Set in Stone is exponentially better. I can’t help but call them white boy reggae, or maybe reggae light is more politically correct. Either way, if you approach it without any preconceived ideas about reggae, you’ll probably find a lot to like. My favs are “Sounds of the Sea,” “Choice Is Yours” and “Out the Door,” but it’s all really good, despite being mostly monotone. My tolerance for sustained reggae beats is pretty low, but I’ll have a hard time over dosing on Set In Stone.
I’m reading a collection of Lester Bangs columns he wrote in the early ‘70s for rock zeens Creem and Rolling Stone and in one of them he describes how thousands of kids had skipped school in Detroit to line up for Jethro Tull tickts and, when it quickly sold out leaving thousands empty handed, a near riot broke out. Bangs goes on to describe Tull frontman Ian Anderson as a “wild-eyed waistcoat-tail-whipping dervish who played long, violent, echo-chamber flute solos as if he were boxing with the instrument.” Oh, to be Lester Bangs. I was aware of Jethro Tull’s status in the annals of rock history, but I’d never heard an entire album of theirs. So I chose Thick as a Brick (1972), mostly because of the gimmick: one song spanning both sides of the album. I was familiar with the “radio version,” about three minutes long. But the official runtime is nearly forty-four minutes, and it’s a flaunting display of musicianship that should qualify as a rock opera. Conceived as a parody, Thick as a Brick was the band’s response to complaints that their previous album, Aqualung, was a “concept album.” Inspired by their fellow Englishmen in the comedy troupe Monty Python, Thick as a Brick weaves a narrative that’s deeply compelling, backed by a musical “score” that’s nothing short of profound. The 25th Anniversary re-release includes a live version (well, twelve minutes of it) recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1978. There’s just enough crowd noise in the mix to make you feel like you’re in that moment, and it’s superb.
It’s been twenty years since I paid much attention to Freedy Johnston, so I didn’t have high hopes when I stumbled upon his 2015 release Neon Repairman. Even musicians I love eventually seem to fizzle out. But not Freedy. This obscure folkrock singer released a ton of great stuff in the Nineties and was considered among the consummate songwriters of his era. Can You Fly from 1992 was one of my favorites at the time (it’s sadly not available on Spotify; I was forced to reminisce via Youtube). His voice and songwriting chops are as solid as ever on Neon Repairman. The title track is a haunting piece that’s typically Freedy, which is to say rather poetic. The protagonist repairs what brings light to others, despite being in the dark and behind the scenes himself. The harmonies on “Baby, Baby Come Home” are pure perfection. He can follow up a simply little ditty like “Broke Street Light” with “The First to Leave the World,” a song that makes you stop and wonder what exactly he means by “the first to leave the world is the first to see the world.” But that’s what Freedy does best, offer up wonderful little songs that make you think. I’m so glad to hear nothing has changed with Freedy Johnston. Sighhhh.
In passing the Black Pumas might sound like another respectful throughback to the Sam Cooke and Al Greene eras. Yet there’s something remarkably original about their funk-soul self-titled debut. Not long ago, frontman Eric Burton was strumming for cash in front of an open guitar case on the Santa Monica Pier before somebody suggested to producer Adrian Quesada that he might be the perfect fit for Quesada’s project. The two joined up in 2017 to form the Pumas and just like that they’re up for a Grammy. The deeply soulful “Colors” with its call for unity drew widespread attention to the record. But all ten tracks are fantastic. Of particular note is the haunting “OCT 33” (a love song about a day that never comes?). For my money, the Black Pumas should win this Grammy, but they’re clear underdogs in a field with Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Lil Nas X. Not surprisingly the Pumas are scheduled to appear at Coachella this year.
Fell into a Dwight Yoakam rabbit hole and found Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… I’m not sure anyone in modern music has aged better than Dwight Yoakum (other than, of course, Dolly Parton). This is essentially a thirtieth anniversary album consisting of previously released Yoakam songs (plus a nice rework of Prince‘s “Purple Rain”) all backed by a bluegrass band. There’s still Yoakam’s hillbilly Bakersfield feel and plenty of beautiful picking and strumming. He reprises “Two Doors Down,” one of the great drinking/heartache songs of all time. This version is solid, and Dwight makes a clear case that his vocals are as strong as ever (it’s not an easy song to sing). The strings and backing vocals are nice. But I’ll always go back to the original, from This Time in 1993. Is there an alcoholic alive who can’t relate to this song? Swimmin’ Pools is an outstanding freshening up of Yoakam classics. And in keeping with tradition, his cowboy hat remains permanently affixed (at least in public). In case you’re wondering, his only remaining hair is what’s poking out around the edges.
Listening to British psychedelic pop band Glass Animals is a little like taking a magic carpet ride. How To Be A Human Being (2016) begins with the gentle strumming of harp strings before a tribal beat takes over and launches us into a grove that foretells things to come. So many great cuts here, but particularly liked the album closer “Agnes,” a dreamy mix of sound that ultimately leads to a catchy chorus. The tone contradicts the song’s narrative, that of loss of a loved one via suicide. The rich synth beat backs the painfully beautiful lyrics: “Guess life is long when soaked in sadness/On borrowed time from Mr. Madness.” The disc is otherwise a trippy pop experience, rich with images of sonic ray guns, cookies as drink coasters, pineapples in the head, and eating mayonnaise out of a jar. What, you might be asking, does all this mean? I’m not sure it matters, because this record is as fun to “see” as well as hear. Their debut ZABA in 2014 is solid, too (particularly the cuts “Gooey,” “Hazy” and “Toes”). But overall I think I prefer this most recent disc. Look for Glass Animals at this year’s Bonnaroo and Okeechobee festivals.
Circles by Mac Miller was released yesterday after more than a year in production following the twenty-six year old’s accidental drug overdose in 2018. The mood on Circles is mostly lo-fi and chill while the companion, 2018’s Swimming, was a more rap influenced disc, with contributions by Snoop Dogg and Thundercat. The premise of two discs was to explore two distinct musical styles, like swimming in a circle. On Circles, anxiety and a cluttered mind are constant themes, set to infectious grooves spanning rap, funk, and trip-hop. On “Good News” he laments: “I spent the whole day in my head/Doin’ a little spring cleaning/I’m always too busy dreaming. I assume producer Jon Brion deserves considerable credit, since he took over this project after Miller’s death. Brion has worked with such introspective artists as Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, making him the perfect person to continue with Miller’s vision here.
I usually hear enough music every day to stumble across something worthy of praise or condemnation. Today was not one of those days, and I’m nearly into my third hour of trying. I liked Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal, but it’s a jazz album and I can’t make an educated assessment of most jazz. I hear it, I like it, but I don’t really know good from bad. In a genre more my speed, gave Band of Horses a spin, specifically Why Are You Ok (2016). Definitely has its moments, although I didn’t really start connecting until the forth cut, “Casual Party.” It seemed to blossom a little from there. “In A Draw” is catchy with nice harmonies. “Whatever, Wherever” is quite lovely. But I’m not overly excited by the Horses, although I haven’t written them off, either.
More than a little intrigued by James Hamilton Leithauser after hearing his 2016 collaboration with Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. Leithauser once fronted a band I’ve never heard of, The Walkmen, and recorded seven albums with them. From this collaboration with Batmanglij, the song “1000 times” seems familiar and likeable. The best cut is the woozy and instantly memorable “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up).” Like a drunken swagger it features what sounds like a harpsipiano and a bar full of people partying, even clinking glasses! Ultimately a saxophone breaks in for a fun impvo that winds down with a sloppy group clap and sing along. Beware of earworm!
This is a politics-free zone, but I was way too interested
in an album released today in support of a 2020 presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders … with the Community is a
collection of twenty songs by mostly DIY musicians and bands, none of whom
you’ve probably heard of, with such names as Cool Original, Bears, Pleasure Systems and (my favorite name)
Blush Cameron. The record is a tough
listen, with a couple exceptions. Someone by the name of Dylan M. Howe offers the decent electronica cut “Blush of Youth.” Wild Pink is probably the best known of
all the acts with a half million listens. Here he covers “Lonesome Highway” by Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Decent. You can listen to the whole thing for free like
I did at stereogum.com, unless you’re eager to support the bands and Bernie.
Trying to wrap up my Top 10 list for 2016 before going live with Music4Savita (side note: purchased the domain name today!). I’d heard and enjoyed several cuts from the rock/folk group The Lumineers‘ second album, Cleopatra. But now I know the rest of it is just as solid, like what Mumford & Sons might be had they not, what, sold out? Petered out? A really special collection of tunes, the inspiration for which came from a conversation lead singer Westley Shultz had with a random taxi driver whom he later dubbed Cleopatra. The experience and the album’s songs were later made into a short film tilted The Ballad of Cleopatrain which the middle-aged woman driver laments the direction her life had taken. The title song begins: “I was Cleopatra, I was young and and actress/When you knelt by my mattress and asked for my hand.” (Note to self: watch the video). Stumbled across the Lumineers’ live set they recorded at the KEXP studio in Seattle and found “Flowers in Your Hair” to be a lovely and fun little song! Digging their vibe, and the cello!
In more Jim James news, Uniform Clarityis a much better platform for vocals than Uniform Distortion, my least favorite disc of his so far. Maybe one record, with a combination of Distortionand Claritycuts, would have sufficed.
Still in my Jim James moment. After hearing Uniform Clarity I’m considering James for knighthood. This is the companion piece to Uniform Distortion (which came out first), and is an acoustic interpretation of the same songs. I intentionally listened in reverse order, having read about both discs beforehand. I had an inkling of what I might hear on something called Distortion, particularly when it required explanation (my word) with something called Clarity. Wanting to know what I was getting into, I chose Clarity first. At times, particularly in falsetto, I hear my hero Dave Matthews, like on “No Secrets”. Other times I hear John Prine. In “Better Late Than Never” I hear Dylan. Then Peter Himmelman (who I haven’t thought of in years). Then Jeff Tweedy! I mean I think Jim James has a distinctive voice. I know I really like it. But he sure as hell makes me think of a lot of other singers. Most of these songs are stripped down, because, James says, he was going for the effect of early recording technology, “when all you could hear was the truth.” The exception to this rule is “Too Good To Be True,” where he throws in some amazing vocal effects. The last two cuts are not included on Distortion and are both fantastic.
There are so many genres and sub categories of music these days it’s like browsing the paint chips display at Home Depot, each one slightly different enough to warrant its own name. The subset dubstep came onto my radar today while checking out The Colour In Anything by James Blake. Under the electronic dance umbrella, dubstep originated in South London in the late 1990s and is characterized by “sparse, syncopated rhythmic patterns with prominent sub-bass frequencies.” I’m not sure I get this album, although some are clearly impressed. He’s produced for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and Frank Ocean. Most of these songs are nothing more than a vehicle to show off Blake’s vocal chops. So maybe dubstep isn’t for me. But sure do dig the watercolor cover!
The previously mentioned Jim James record Eternally Even continues to astound. His voice is so pleasantly approachable and wispy, often over sustained and hypnotic organ notes. Road tested the entire collection today while biking Venice and Santa Monica boardwalks. Scored a perfect five buds! File under recommended beach/baking accompaniment.
Who knows where all this artificial intelligence stuff will take us. I mean those sex robots are really catching on I hear. And if we’re switching up how we get off, here’s the perfect “artificial” music to listen to while doing it: Holly Herndon’s PROTO. A laptop and her voice are the only instruments used here, and who knows how much of the voices we hear are actually human. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because it’s cool as hell and brilliantly composed. Can we call it music if everything we hear is created by software? Is it real? Is anything real? Who the fuck cares. It’s experimental, complex and an incredible audio journey. Do yourself a favor. Smoke first. And during.
Listened to Frank Ocean‘s debut channel ORANGE (2012) “start to finish.” I understand the hype now. This disc feels as relevant today as it must have eight years ago, whether he’s lamenting privileged slackers (“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”), unemployed guys mooching off their stripper girlfriends in “Pyramids,” or the hapless manchild pouring out his heart to a Muslim cab drivers (“Bad Religion”).
Frank Ocean’sBlonde (2016) made a couple different albums of the decade lists. That coupled with the announcement that he’s headlining Coachella, it was finally time for me to pay attention. What I found was an extraordinary body of work. A blend of hip-hop and RnB, Blonde is a deeply moving way to spend an hour thinking about where we are as a people and how we connect, or not. It kicks off with a tribute to several modern-day fallen black heros including Trayvon Martin, the unarmed seventeen-year-old black man who was shot and killed by an off-duty security guard and who became one of the many faces of the tragic modern-day epidemic of excessive force being used against people of color. The album kicks off with Ocean’s seemingly helium-induced vocals, as he sings: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just like me.” This is largely a languid and minimal record that finds Ocean contemplating a variety offsetting emotions, sometimes colored by psychedelic enhancements. Much of it bemoans the ebb and flow of love and lust in today’s environment.In Siegfried, he laments: “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer in the thought.” Not sure exactly what it means, but it sure got me thinking. I know I’m late to the Frank Ocean party, but at least I’m here now! You know how you hear a song that hits super close to home at that moment? “Self Control.” That is all.
My Morning Jacket is one of those bands I’ve heard of for years but couldn’t name a single one of their songs. Lead singer Jim James broke off in 2016 to release his first solo, Eternally Even, which made several Best Of lists, so time for me to check him out. First, though, I dipped my toe in the MMJ pool, specifically “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Parts,” parts one and two. Amazing stuff, and totally new to my ears. The last minute of “Touch Me” is mesmerizing, as is the entire eight-plus minutes of it. A faint wa-wa effect gradually slows to a plodding, piano repetition that’s nothing short of chilling. They must be amazing live. More on Jim James later. For now I’ll only say “The World’s Smiling Now” is my go-to, feel-good, the world’s-not-going-to-end, I’m-okay-you’re-okay song right now. So soothing and beautiful. Think I’ll go listen to it again.
I never listened to Van’ Morrison‘s Too Long in Exile when it first came out in 1993, probably because I was deep in my blues phase then. I was a purist, and people like Robert Cray and certainly Van Morrison weren’t real blues guys. Yeah Morrison could display a deep soul when he sang. But he was more jazz than blues. All the blues crossover stuff at the time – from legends like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King — put me off. So I avoided Too Long in Exile, until tonight. It’s mostly straight ahead, polished blues, but the two cuts with John Lee Hooker are exceptional, including “Gloria,” the immortalized song written by Morrison a few months after I was born (damn, Gloria and I are old farts). It wasn’t a blues song then, but he and Hooker collaborate here for a killer interpretation in twelve-bar progression. Unaware until now that “Gloria” was actually the B-side of the single “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by the group Them, which Morrison fronted when he first started out. In a sign of how backwards things used to be, the song was banned in some communities, including the Chicago station WLS, because it contained the phrase: “She comes to my room.” Also, found a loose interpretation by Patti Smith from her 1975 Horses, that begins with the great line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine.”
Nothing could make me feel older than my college hero and
former REM frontman Michael Stipe turning sixty, but he did
just that this past Saturday. To mark the occasion he released “Drive to the
Ocean,” yet another dire warning about global warming set to music (admirably
he’s donating the proceeds to Pathway to Paris, an advocacy group fighting for
The Paris Climate Agreement). Not sure if I’m sadder about Stipe’s (and my) advancing
years, or the song itself, which left me, for lack of a better word, bored.
It’s so new the lyrics aren’t even on the internet yet. So I transcribed them myself and, to my absolute amazement, I understood every word on the first listen! How very un-REM! Among Stipe’s charms were his indecipherable lyrics. In the late Nineties, when I logged on to the internet for one of the first times ever, I googled the lyrics to my favorite REM songs. It was like opening a treasure chest because REM never included lyrics in their liner notes. That coupled with Stype’s mumbling made for some frustrating sing-alongs. “Drive to the Ocean” could benefit from some garbled words (“We stand at the water/The wind and the sun/Where all of god’s creatures/Are gathered as one.”) Yawwwwn. Hey Michael, my good man, the planet needs all the help it can get. Next time, maybe try a little harder.
When you stumble on the name of a new band three times in a week, maybe it’s a sign that something’s up. The five members of Fontaines D.C. met while attending a music institute in Dublin and initially released a collection of poetry before collaborating on something musically. The name came from Fontaines the character in The Godfather, and Dublin City. Their first full-length album, released last April, is titled Dogrel, an homage to a working-class poetry known as Doggerel, characterized by irregular rhythm and rhyme. It’s post-punk, garage rock in your face sound is reminiscent of The Pogues or dare I say The Clash. Grian Chatten’s thick Irish accent and monotone delivery even deepen the authenticity. In a statement the band says the album is “about the weight of the world that’s pressing against you, and struggling to find a balance, an equilibrium.” Sounds super relevant. Today’s introduction to the Fontaines is like finding something I’d misplaced thirty years ago. It’s simply phenomenal. Can’t get enough of the spastic “Boys in the Better Land” (“If you’re a rock star, porn star, supersar/Doesn’t matter what you are/Get yourself a good car, get outta here.” The opening track (“Big”) clocks in at less than two minutes but packs a lethal punch and portends the poetic lyricism to come. “Dublin in the rain is mine/A pregnant city with a catholic mind/Starch those sheets for the birdhouse jail/All mescalined when the past is stale, pale.” This album is hard to put down. They’ll be at Coachella this year, btw.
I’m pretty uneducated in rap. I have nothing against it. I often like what I do hear. But I don’t really seek it out. Tyler, The Creator is categorized as rap, and in fact won the Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year. But rap only begins to describe it. There are so many compelling layers to IGOR that the end product defies classification. All I know is it’s the closest thing to a rap album I’ve listened to start to finish. And my life is definitely enriched because of it. Playboi Carti joins Dev Hynes from Blood Orange and Charlie Wilson on the incredible single “Earfquake” that pleads for a former lover to return. “Your love is shakin’ me up and it’s making my heart break/Cause you make my earth quake.” There’s lots of heartbreak here, but that’s part of his irresistible appeal. Calling himself The Creator might seem a bit presumptuous, but he does seem to create an experience that’s more than musical. And then there’s the whole persona and theatrics. At first the blond bob wig felt gratuitous until I realized it’s kind of essential. I know I’m the last person on earth to be introduced to Tyler, The Creator, but just in case I’m not, you might give IGOR a listen. It’s phenomenal.
With Australia wild fires turning into a raging inferno from hell, I can’t help but think about all the musicians I’ve loved over the years from that country.The very first concert I ever attended (without adult supervision) was Olivia Newton John, whom I spent many years adoring and whose poster-sized image hung in my dorm room (briefly) until I went in a different Aussie direction, Men at Work. God how I loved Business as Usual! After college was a Midnight Oil phase while INXS was a staple for many years. More recently it’s been TheTemper Trap and Tame Impala. But my absolute favorite Aussie at the moment is Courtney Barnett, specifically her 2015 album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. I’ll write more on that album later. Just hoping the good folks down under, and in particular all those great musicians, stay safe and that life resumes as normal very soon.
After three passes through Signal, the debut album from the all female post-punk trio Automatic, I can say I’m sold and can’t wait for more! A product of the DIY community in LA, they did a month of Mondays at The Echo this past summer then released this stripped-down collection a month later. Mostly simply mixes of vocals, bass, drums and lots of synth, there are numerous highlights here, particularly the title track, the mesmerizing “Highway” and the retro buzzy “Too Much Money.” The vocals are mostly in the background in these songs which gives space for the big electronic punch up front. There’s almost nothing written about Automatic on the inter webs. No wiki page yet, however there is not one but two other bands with the same name, and they both have pages! This might be a good time to consider a name change before things explode. Automatic is a stupid name anyway, apparently chosen as some kind of homage to The Go-Gos, the only all-female band to ever have a number one selling album (Beauty and the Beat), which includes the single “Automatic.” One of the few things on line said Automatic is “highly recommended for fans of the Savages, Suicide and NEU! Having never heard of any of those bands, I went directly to the Spotify machine and found an amazing instrumental jam, a song called “Hallogallo” from the German krautrock band NEU! Released in 1972, it sounds nothing like Automatic, but I thank that random reviewer for the non sequitur. NEU! consists of two former members of the legendary group Kraftwerk, whose work in the early ‘70s in Europe is considered groundbreaking in electronic music circles.
Fell into a George Harrison rabbit hole thanks to The Seventies on CNN, a documentary perfect for burning off a New Year’s Day hangover, although that’s something I haven’t experienced in five years (stupid sobriety!). Anyway, I know less about Harrison’s solo stuff than the other fab three, so I put on All Things Must Pass, his epic triple album from 1970, considered the best of all The Beatles’ solo efforts. Produced by convicted killer Phil Spector, it was a huge hit and spent multiple weeks at the top of the charts. All these decades later, it just doesn’t hold up. The songs and mostly dull as is the musicianship. There are times it’s downright insufferable, like “Beware of Darkness” and “I Dig Love.” At least Harrison avoids cookie-cutter pop songs. But what it offers in ambition it lacks in delivery. His voice is mundane and tedious. The most enjoyable cuts were ones that have gotten the most airplay over the years. It was nice to hear “My Sweet Lord” again, and compare it back-to-back with The Chiffons “He’s So Fine.” In 1976, The Chiffons successfully sued Harrison for stealing the tune (and it’s pretty obvious). But I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing “If Not For You” again. “Awaiting on You All” and the closing cut “Hear Me Lord” are a little too religious-y for my taste. In order to kill some of the two hours and five minutes it took to listen to it all, I walked back and forth from Melrose to Santa Monica Boulevard, trying hard not to hit the fast forward button. It’s accurate to say I simply endured this collection. It wasn’t until the third disc, subtitled the Apple Jam, that things started to get interesting. Nothing more than four simple, improvised blues jams, they don’t came close to the best blues jams I’ve heard, but still pretty adventurous for a former Beatle.