Here we are at the end of another year, and as usual, I humbly offer my two cents as to what one might check out if one wanted to be pointed in the direction of some new and interesting music. This year I’ve gone and put examples of each of my picks up on an iTunes playlist for easy reference, and the link to that is both HERE and again at the bottom of this post. You may have heard that iTunes has finally increased the length of their track previews from 30 to a sweet, sweet NINETY SECONDS, so one can actually get an idea of what a song is like when previewing now. It’s almost… USEFUL!
At any rate, have at, and remember, this is just the honest opinion of one man who likes what he likes. Enjoy. :]
1. The Weepies – Be My Thrill - I LOVE THIS RECORD. Effortlessly. I don’t need to do any work to love it; I just press “play”, and whatever song I’m on, it doesn’t take more than a few seconds before I’m in a better place. This is the sort of pop album that just sucks you in with song after song of sing-along goodness. I could listen to pretty much anything on here on repeat and not tire for a good long time.
The Weepies are a husband/wife duo. That in itself is cause for applause, as they are undoubtedly singing to or about each other at least half the time. Then, as they almost always harmonize with each other, it would seem they are also sometimes singing to or about themSELVES with the other’s words… how comfortable with each other could they possibly BE?? Having co-written twice with my own wife, and knowing the way it brings insecurity to the forefront, I’m really floored by the idea that they do this constantly.
Steve Tannen and Deb Talan were both renown singer/songwriters on the northeast scene back at the turn of the century, and they were both REALLY GOOD. And then they dated, married, and started a family, and instead of killing their drive or sapping their energy to create art, it seems to have make them BETTER. Wow. Now they’ve made what I think is, hands down, one of the most enjoyable records I’ve ever heard. I read something when the album was released saying they wanted to make an album their kids could enjoy just as easily as adults could, and while I don’t know if their children are old enough to appreciate the sentiment of “How Do You Get High?” or “Hard To Please”, it doesn’t matter; every song is so catchy (while retaining substance, mind you), there is no age limit in either direction.
Balancing simplicity with originality… while retaining honesty and/or relevance — that is the quintessential dilemma of every pop artist, and The Weepies have just nailed that equation dead-on here. Wonderful.
(BASS NOTE: Not that it should have anything to do with it, but it bears mention that most of the bass on this gem was laid down by Tony Levin, who is one of the most versatile and creative musicians alive. If anyone is wondering how to play awesome bass on a mainstream songwriter album, this is a disc to learn from; Levin’s sound is huge and pulsating, yet playful and bouncy, yet melodic and daring. The one exception is on “Not A Lullaby”, where the thick, undulating, fingerstyle arpeggios of Larry Klein are an obvious contrast; still rad though. :] )
2. Anais Mitchell – Hadestown - If there are any “taboo” words in modern music marketing, both “folk” and “opera” are among them. So if you’ve never heard of this record of self-proclaimed “folk-opera”, I’m not surprised. If you’re cultured, however, you probably HAVE heard the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This album re-tells that story, but the setting is not “B.C. Greece”… rather, it seems to be either Great Depression-era America, or the America we’re headed for in about three more years.
Collaborative projects in the music world are a crapshoot. Very often, instead of being the best of what each party has to offer, the result waters down all the parts, leaving a lackluster whole. Not so with Hadestown. Every vocalist in this star-studded cast is bringing their serious A-Game. Mitchell herself portrays Eurydice. Ani Difranco is Persephone. As Orpheus is Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon, whose double-tracked, octave-split vocals haunt the listener throughout the entire score. However, the show stealer is, hands down, folk legend Greg Brown as Hades. He is so good I tremble when I hear his voice, and more than one Hollywood actor ought to take in his performance. It’s awesome.
Anais Mitchell herself deserves much wider acclaim, though her voice may be a bit too left-of-center for some; her thin, lilting vocals seem more suited to a role in “Guys and Dolls” than to modern folk, but I think comparisons to a young Kate Bush aren’t entirely out of line. Nevertheless, this pretty much exiles her from the mainstream, but her skills as a composer and lyricist are frighteningly good; her songwriting is just stellar. On every level, this piece is genius: the libretto, the treatment, the musical arrangements, the thematic elements, the pacing… just perfect (though Mitchell can’t take all the credit for that; she collaborated on the piece with arranger Michael Chorney).
I have listened to album versions of stage productions, and they are usually quite tedious. But this is riveting from start to finish, probably because it is a piece of music first and foremost. Many projects like this sacrifice the music for the sake of the story, but the music here is integral to the whole, and it’s laden with hook after hook. An absolute must-have listening experience for when you have an hour to sit in one place and take it all in, because you will be transported.
3. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue - This album has been kicking my ass since the day I got it. What a fantastic collaboration of a pop songwriter and a pop author. The story of how they came to work together is set out in a joint interview with both of them; it’s a video on the deluxe iTunes edition if you’re interested. My concern is how awesome the end result is.
Basically the formula is this: Hornby sent Folds the words, then Folds wrote the music and arranged the songs. The difference between this and every other lyricist/composer relationship in music history seems to be that Hornby is an author; he’s not always concerned with rhyme scheme or cadence or phrasing; he’s just getting his point across. This presents Folds with the challenge of bringing the stories to life faithfully, but while making the words into lyrics, and that is way harder than it sounds.
The end result doesn’t just “sound like Ben” — Hornby’s words push him into territory, both rhythmically and thematically, that he’d be hard pressed to move into on his own. When a singer/songwriter ‘writes an album’, certain thematic elements tend to come in to many of the songs, and can influence the tone of the music. But it seems Hornby went through his vault of ideas and cherry-picked a variety of topics and sentiments, and Folds gave each song it’s own identity; almost like he pays homage to a different genre in every song. This could sound disjointed and inappropriate at every turn, but it’s quite the opposite. The whole thing is captivating, and more to the point, every song is a uniquely moving story by a master storyteller, told by another master storyteller. One of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.
4. Steven Page – Page One - So, near as I can tell, the differences in Steven Page now that he’s gone solo are: 1. He’s now allowed to be completely, unabashedly cynical in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible on every single song. 2. He no longer has to space his songs out between inane ditties with bad rapping and pandering to the lowest IQ in the room.
For those who don’t know, Page was the de facto “lead” singer of Barenaked Ladies, and he’s finally his own man. Years ago, he did another solo record called “The Vanity Project”, and I was pretty disappointed by it, thinking he just threw all his “back-burner” songs onto a record BNL wouldn’t release. “Page One”, by contrast, is a better record than either Page or BNL have put out in a decade.
This is smart-pop heaven. The songs are, in classic Page fashion, completely satirical, yet delivered with his trademark, irresistibly theatrical, self-deprecating bravado. Much of the record seems to reflect on his failed relationships, both familial and musical, but amid the mostly upbeat arrangements, the topical listener would never know it. The album opens with the one-two punch of “A New Shore” and “Indecision”, both great examples Page’s poetic license-to-kill. In each, it feels safe because we’re in-on-the-joke, but later, during the scathing “Entourage”, “Marry Me”, and definitely by the time we hit “Over Joy”, the gloves are off. On the few occasions the record slows down into a more sombre valence, we are treated to the starkly unavoidable lyrics of “Clifton Springs” and (great song title alert:) “All The Young Monogamists”, which offer insight into his personal life in ways we’ve never heard before. Make no mistake: Steven Page is a genius, and he’s back with a serious vengeance. Against himself, maybe, but I’ll take it.
5. Joey Ryan – Kenter Canyon EP - I saw Joey play a show with Amber Rubarth back at the top of 2009, and enjoyed it. When I saw this title among now-deceased Amie Street’s “New Releases” earlier this year, I remembered him and figured it wasn’t a huge risk to take a chance on a five-song EP (the copyright on this is 2009, but it doesn’t seem to have been distributed nationally until January of this year). Here we are, nine months later, and every time I listen to it I wish it were longer. If it were, you’d probably have read about it four slots sooner, but it’s obvious that Ryan opted to spend his budget on world class production talent rather than weeks and weeks of studio time.
What a fantastic handful of songs. The EP features all major label-talent (musicians, take note: Tony Berg produced, and seems to have brought in David Rawlings, Patrick Warren and Matt Chamberlain. WHAT?) Based on my recollection, Ryan is a pretty average strummer on the guitar, and much of the beauty of these arrangements is due to Berg & Rawlings’ breathtaking six-string texture-work, so I’m not convinced that the impact of these studio versions is duplicated in a live setting. But whatever — Ryan’s voice sounds amazing, and just as importantly, these songs offer an intimate snapshot into a young man’s life as he deals with mortality, fear, unrequited love, futility, and responsibility (“Walls Come Down” might just as well be titled “Temporary”, and the closing song is, aptly, titled “Permanent”). For four bucks, there is no reason not to own this.
6. Andy McKee – Joyland - I first heard Andy in China in 2006. We were both at the big music trade show, and he was playing at the booth just down the row from me. We watched each other’s sets, chatted, and talked about doing a show together some day back in the States. He was just as (un)known as I was back then. Three months later, his YouTube videos had made him a worldwide sensation, and I feel lucky just to have hung out with him “back when”.
Considering how many people who follow my music are listeners of solo and fingerstyle guitar and bass, I always wonder who I’m offending when I mention how little of those genres I enjoy. There’s just so much thoughtless, meanderingly bland drivel being released; it’s as though many instrumental players feel they are exempt from the responsibility of writing something with a melody or a form, and many don’t seem to be able to showcase their virtuosity without sacrificing the song. So the acoustic music world was definitely ready for this man, who commits none of the aforementioned atrocities. They’ve embraced him, and he’s returned the favor on this record of beautiful, engaging instrumental music.
There is both melody and technical proficiency here in spades, but there is something else: Heart. These are lush songs — with character — that resonate far beyond the idea of “how McKee is making the sounds come out of the guitar”. These songs are simply beautiful pieces of music… that few other people in the world can play.
“Joyland” is probably going to be mentioned in the same breath as “Aerial Boundaries” by the new generation of guitar aficionados, and why not? McKee has a grassroots mandate that says he’s The Guy now. He’s taken pages out of the books of Hedges, Reed, McLaughlin and Ross, but he’s writing music very much his own, and finally pushing the envelope of fingerstyle guitar in a direction it hasn’t gone in awhile: Forward.
7. The Rescues – Let Loose The Horses – This band did what so many musicians I know (myself included) could not do: compromise for the sake of furthering their careers in the industry. Reading that back, I realize it could be taken in a derogatory sense, so let me clarify: I’m REALLY impressed with them, and they’ve put out a really fantastic record.
Gabriel Mann, Adrianne Gonzalez, Rob Giles, and Kyler England were all successful solo artists who collaborated together in various pairings over the years, and who eventually decided to consolidate their superpowers into sort of a Justice League of Awesomeness. In a situation like this, everyone has to sublimate their ego to the greater good of the group; each member takes a definitive ‘lead’ vocal on only one track (and even then there are always tasteful cameos from other members), and on the other eight tunes, the members start sharing the spotlight, either via seamless switch-offs from verse-to-lift-to-chorus or through intense harmonies that build a number of the tracks to what I could only call “gloriously anthemic” heights. Make no mistake; these are pros, shining.
Though the product of four highly individual writers, there seems to be a theme through most of the album, and I might call it “repair” — either wishing for it, confronting its possibility, or abandoning it altogether. The whole of the experience is dramatic and powerful (with the exception of Mann’s “Can’t Stand the Rain” and Giles’ “Stay Over”, which offer some needed levity via themes of “over-the-top self-pity” and “lucky schoolboy”, respectively). The biggest showstopper gets saved for last though, and is the only song present in which each of the four takes a turn singing lead, to build the amazing “You’re Not Listening” from a whisper to a roar. It’s been a long time since a supergroup made waves, but if this crew can stay together, they are absolutely next at-bat.
8. Punch Brothers – Antifogmatic - It must be rough being as chiseled and statuesque as Chris Thile. Apparently, the man has so many women throwing themselves at him on a day-to-day basis that he will never be the well-adjusted gentleman he seems to yearn to be in his songs….
Punch Brothers established themselves a few years ago as the new purveyors of progressive new-grass, featuring five young lions who kick the crap out of their instruments while simultaneously nailing thick, wicked harmony vocals through endless changes of key and tempo. Their debut album was breathtaking, and was mostly arranged as one suite separated into movements… all to tell the epic tale of Thile’s divorce. The stark (but awesome) poetry was amazing, but the whole thing was a bit self-indulgent, and it flew over the heads of most.
Fast forward, and what used to be “the guy from Nickel Creek’s new band” is now recognized on its own merit. Not only that, but it is a band being produced by the legendary Jon Brion. So look out, baby: “Antifogmatic” is the sound of five virtuosi who have been playing together long enough to become musically telepathic, and these songs sound organic and inspired. Even cooler, they sound inspired not only by Thile… there are new elements to the band’s sound all over the place (one tune in particular slapped me in the face with a cool homage to Mike Marshall’s “Gator Strut”), and I’m guessing those have been contributed by the ensemble’s other worthy members. It’s not even fair to stamp their main genre as “bluegrass”, or even “newgrass” anymore… this is a progressive pop album that just so happens to have been recorded with traditional bluegrass instruments, and they give as many nods to electronic music as they do to hyperspeed flatpicking.
…but yeah; the songs are still almost entirely about girls, and about Thile’s apparent inability to have a committed and stable relationship. That’s not a bad thing, as it’s not something you wouldn’t expect from a group of five strapping lads with a penchant for boot-stompin’. Thile may be a ladies’ man, but he did warn us about it long ago. So we can’t complain.
9. Martin Sexton – Sugarcoating – Joel Ackerson turned me on to this powerhouse many years ago, I was blown away, and have been an avid listener ever since. I once got an amazing compliment comparing my on stage “intensity” to that of Mr. Sexton, and have proudly displayed that in my press clippings, because as a live performer, he is a living legend. When I finally got to see him, my mouth hung open for two hours and there were tears covering my face.
As iconic a performer as he is though, Sexton has never been a knock-out in the writing department. In fact, he’s quite hit-or-miss. But when I heard that the intimidatingly awesome Dan Mackenzie co-wrote this entire new record with him, I knew it was worth checking out. Mackenzie’s own albums have graced this very list, and the idea of the two of them collaborating sounded like it would be sheer magic.
It was. This is the finest offering Sexton has put out in a very long time. Mackenzie seems to have steered him away from the “jam-bandy-ness” that, while appropriate for the fans that pack his shows, makes for a pretty boring listening experience on a studio album. Instead, the songs are engaging, and Marty’s storytelling is tempered by Mackenzie’s penchant for hip chord changes. Old school “jazzy Marty” still makes a few appearances on songs like “Boom Sh-Boom” and “Easy On The Eyes”, but the tracks that make this album resonate are the ones with the messages. Check out “Found”, which is a slight return to his “Glory Bound” days; “Sugarcoating”, which is as blatant an accusation of the federal government for the events of 9-11 as I’ve ever heard wrapped in a tasty, bluegrass-y, candy shell; and the steady, heartfelt groove of “Friends Again”. Whatever you do though, listen good and hard to the shining gem “Shane”, written for his son. Welcome back, Marty. You’ve been missed.
10. Pomplamoose vs. Peter Gabriel - Tribute to Famous People vs. Scratch My Back- I’m breaking all KINDS of arbitrary rules here… not only are there TWO albums sharing this slot, but every song on each of these albums is a COVER. Thing is, every arrangement of every cover contained on either of these albums is eye-poppingly brilliant, and they comprise some of the most interesting music to be released not only this year, but this decade. It’s all about perspective and expectation, and either of these great tribute albums will give you new perspective while completely shattering any expectation you had. And that’s rad, no matter who penned the songs originally.
Peter Gabriel. Right. You’ve probably heard of him. But just when it seemed he couldn’t push his all-star band any harder into the esoteric and weird, he made “Scratch My Back”, on which he gives the band a break and employs the services of another group: an orchestra. And together, they cover everyone from Paul Simon to Elbow, Bruce Springsteen to Radiohead, Randy Newman to Arcade Fire… like only Gabriel with a philharmonic could. It’s not something you’d put on as background music while cleaning the house — it requires a comfortable bed or chair, a dim or dark room, and a few glasses of something to keep you still, but as soon as you see where he’s taking the opening cover of David Bowies’ “Heroes”, you’ll understand why it’s an entirely worthwhile experience.
And on the absolute OTHER side of the musical spectrum is Pomplamoose. The YouTube superstars; the pioneers of the “videosong”; that duo from the Christmas Hyundai commercial… or maybe you know them as those white kids who covered Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Regardless, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn are here to stay, and they are phenomenal musicians. It’s not a new idea to cover someone else’s song to try and win over new fans — Pomplamoose did an entire album of them, and put most every one up on YouTube as a videosong. That’s brilliant marketing, and has won them thousands of fans, but regardless of all that are the arrangements of these (mostly) well known pop songs: Conte and Dawn take great delight in re-harmonizing these tunes, putting new grooves with oblong, weird bass lines underneath them, and then layering stacks upon stacks of avant-garde-multi-tracked vocals, glockenspiels, squeeze-toys, and hand-claps over the top of them.
Gabriel’s offering is stoic, sombre beauty. Pomplamoose’s is delightful fun. Each are worthy. Check ‘em out.
Honorable Mention: Mumford and Sons are a really good band. They all seem to be able to play their instruments well, and they mesh powerfully well as a whole. The lead guy has a really good voice… like a younger Dave Matthews with a British accent, and honestly, I dig that. I like their arrangements. I like their harmonies… I like the fact that they seem to have brought an arena-rock attitude to what sounds like traditional pub music. But I need to be moved by more than two songs on an album for me to consider it “good”, let alone “great”, and aside from “White Blank Page” and “Little Lion Man”, I don’t think the writing is entirely there yet. I can’t fault Mumford’s delivery or his honesty… I just wish he didn’t beat me over the head with only one musical idea for four and a half minutes at a time. That said, with all the hype they’ve gotten and the touring they’ve done, I’m willing to bet their next release will be one to watch.
Here’s that link to the iTunes playlist. Enjoy the music, and happy new year, everyone. :)