Posts Tagged ‘Elbow’

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Seth’s Top Picks for 2011

January 7, 2012

Happy New Year, World!

I waited a few extra weeks to post it this time around, as so much music got released late last year.  All the album covers are links to listen, and in some cases, purchase.  For those who like to listen along as they read, I’ve cobbled together a short iTunes playlist HERE.

Have at, and please do remember: This is just the honest opinion of one man who likes what he likes.

Enjoy.  :]

1. Kimbra – Vows
A young woman from New Zealand (by way of Australia) took a chunk of the world by storm last year, and only the hipsters in maybe two American cites are even aware of her existence.  This must change now.  Everyone wants to talk about Adele and Amy.  People, I’m ’bout to ‘splain something to you:  You need to get hip to Kimbra.

Most folks heard about her last year when she wore nothing but paint while she sang a guest vocal on another artist’s song, and that song went mega-viral on YouTube (if you actually DO live under a rock, that “other artist” is Gotye [see #2, below]).  She has a lot to thank Gotye for, as well as the YouTube search algorithm, because once I heard that, I knew I needed to give a fair shot to hearing her solo stuff.  I clicked on the first sidebar link that showed her name; a song called “Settle Down”… and then sat there for the next four minutes with that awestruck, mashed-up face I get when I hear something that grooves ridiculously.  Not only was the songwriting brilliant, but the production was as well, and the thing that hit me the hardest; the powerful, throaty voice I first heard in her guest vocal had been replaced by a playfully vibrant, agile, breathy singer more suited for an old school R&B number.  The transformation was more than intriguing, and from there, I watched all the other videos of hers I could find.  I learned that she was only days away from releasing her debut album, and was immediately ready to get it.

And then it wasn’t released in America.  Or Canada.  Or Europe.  In fact, it was ONLY released in Australia and New Zealand.  This was the worst idea EVER, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for now, suffice to say that I DID get a copy of “Vows”, have listened to it scores of times these past months, and am not even the least bit tired of it.  

So creative, so bold.  Kimbra is above all the current “white girls with soul” because of a few major factors: First, she’s such a fresh and exciting singer because she doesn’t sing like a “singer”.  She sings like a horn player.  Nearly every song on the record features at least one main vocal hook, as well as another vocal hook with no words.  It’s not scat-singing in the purest sense, as that implies improvisation, and she never “takes a solo”, but she uses her voice as a lead instrument as much as she uses it to deliver her subtly profound lyrics, and not with the typical milquetoast pentatonic runs we hear from every white-girl-with-a-record-deal.  Kimbra can SING. Flawlessly. God DAMN.  

Second, she’s a ridiculous writer.  It’s not too technical for me to tell you that her chord changes and melodies are INSANELY cool.  It can be hard to tell what contributions to an album come from the producer as opposed to the artist, but all you have to do is check out some of the videos of her performing in pared down settings to realize that this girl honestly does have all this stuff in her head, and she can’t sing it out fast enough.  What’s also alarming is the balance of poetry and honesty in her lyrics… The theme of an album called “Vows” is, not surprisingly, commitment, and each song presents an appropriately different viewpoint and scenario.  It’s hard to believe someone this young has tapped into these feelings or had some of these experiences, or that she appreciates irony the way she does.  And just while you’re thinking, “What an old soul is she”, she busts out the album’s supreme cover tune: Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring”… and you’re completely won over, ’cause she CRUSHES it.

“Vows” sculpts daring and varied arrangements that constantly blow me away; I just don’t hear pop artists taking this many chances any more.  The ‘Showtune-meets-Stomp’ groove of “Settle Down” is captivating enough, but when the B-section kicks in, it’s just sick, and when they ramp that same section up a notch again at the end of the song? Undeniable.  “Cameo Lover” throws the album’s biggest curveball: it starts out shockingly contrite, with cliche production that pales in comparison to the song before.  You don’t see the curveball coming until it hits you in the face, and every time I hear it I’m reminded of that first moment when it came out of nowhere… and I can’t stop grinning. “Old Flame” is a tale of nostalgic love set to an uber-lush arrangement reminiscent of the Purple One in his prime — the drum sounds and synth patches may as well be the same ones used on Prince’s ubiquitous “The Beautiful Ones”, but the song is all Kimbra, and the tune’s amazing bridge alone is worth the price of admission.  On “Call Me”, the band kicks out the most modern soul groove of the collection, and it’s startling; the groove stays so relentlessly on the back side of the beat you will forget to breathe, and Kimbra sings her ass off.  That’s really a given — there isn’t a song on here in which her voice doesn’t sound supreme. From seductive to playful to flirtatious to scorned to vindictive, she kills it every time.

Though they’re not the crowdpleasers of the album, the final two official cuts are probably her most visceral and vulnerable performances — “Withdraw” is a simmering, old school 12/8 number that puts the “tortured” in torch song, and in which Kimbra sounds like she’s actually been crying before she cut the vocal, while “The Build Up” is a resigned look back on why things go wrong; a tension-filled orchestration that it seems like Bjork might have included on “Post”, but let Kimbra re-write instead.  Every song goes somewhere new… sometimes BRAND new.  Nowhere on the album is this more evident than on the mind-bending “Wandering Limbs”, which can aptly be described as a jazz waltz doing battle with a thick layer of drum loops implying a syncopated four-count beat.  If that’s not a dense enough musical underpinning, what goes on over the top of it is crazy; Kimbra duets with one Sam Lawrence  …a white guy… who sings like Al Green (I am aware them’s fightin’ words — go listen).  They begin so delicately, with such restraint… but by the end, they’re riffing off each other madly, and the whole effect is sonically intoxicating.

Kimbra’s deal with Warner Music has now been extended to the US… but as I mentioned earlier, THEY WON’T RELEASE “VOWS”.  Instead, they released a short EP that includes “Settle Down”, a live version of “Plain Gold Ring”, a misguided remix of “Cameo Lover” that misses the entire point of the original, and “Limbo”, which, while a wicked cool deep album cut, isn’t one of the few songs anyone should get as their first taste of Kimbra.

So. I am on a mission to make sure everyone hears what she’s supposed to sound like before the suits have a chance to water her down.  For the first time, I’m endorsing the idea that you all go get my favorite record of the year by any means necessary.  I’m not saying you should steal it.  I’m just saying… get it.  However it is that you “get” music not released in the US and not available for legitimate, legal download here.  Buy the Warner EP on iTunes as well if it helps you sleep better at night, but whatever you do, don’t listen to a note of it before you hear “Vows”; the real album from a shining new artist in her prime, making fantastic noise.

(addendum: on the day I posted this, Kimbra announced that there WILL, in fact, be a US version of “Vows” released this year — apparently with bonus tracks.  Hallelujah! :)

 

2. Gotye –
Making Mirrors

Yet another amazing Australian export won me over this past year.  In truth, I discovered Gotye and Kimbra at the same time (as most Americans did) through Gotye’s smash hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know”.  The song didn’t just go viral on YouTube because of the profound video; it wasn’t just because he and Kimbra were naked and covered in paint; it wasn’t just that half the world suddenly gasped and said, “Holy crap; that guy sounds like old-school STING!” — it was also because the song is great.  I would not be the only person to suggest that if 2011 had “a song”, that was it.  

Gotye (apparently pronounced “GOR-te-ay”), is actually one guy named Wally De Backer.  Imagine having a name that Belgian and moving to Australia, listening to the populace mangle it mercilessly day in and day out for years…  you’d get your vengeance by picking a universally obscure and hard-to-say band name, too.

Undeniably, the first thing to bring up about Gotye is THAT VOICE.  When he sings in his lower register, as he is prone to do when opening a song, his voice is devilishly silky smooth, and at first it’s unclear; is this a baritone singing high or a tenor singing low?  It’s as if he knows when you’re contemplating this, and that’s when he attacks with the high notes — the impossibly high, crystal clear, brilliantly agitated notes he is capable of belting out at the top of his gorgeous tenor voice.  The Sting comparisons are by no means unwarranted — Gotye is the closest thing we’ve had to a younger Sting since…  younger Sting, and to be honest, this guy has more control and versatility.  Any who doubt need only listen to “I Feel Better”, this album’s homage to the Motown of yore.  It’s un-fricking believable the pipes this guy has.

“Making Mirrors” is a wonderful listen; a perfectly paced journey with all the songs in the right order.  The album opens with the short title track: soothing, ethereal synth pads and DeBacker’s breathy voice lulling you into the false impression that this will be some sort of Peter Gabriel-esque excursion. Sixty seconds later, that expectation is bombastically shattered by “Easy Way Out”, which is one of the greatest “get your attention” tracks ever put at the front of a record. Here we are presented all at once with De Backer’s prowess as a drummer, a singer, and a producer (a trend that will continue). The song is perfect both on its own, and as the perfect set-up for the next track…  which happens to be “Somebody That I Used To Know”; the aforementioned jaded-breakup-hit of last summer.  Much has been said about this tune, and I’ll add that I think it is a stellar example of how using samples integrated with real instrumentation can actually elevate a song rather than mire it in comparisons to the source track.  It seems that this is the method used in creating many of the songs on the remainder of the album, and Gotye pulls it off time and again with admirable creativity and inspiration.  

Of all the different song styles presented, I was most surprised by the slow, trippy, dub grooves… the sort of jams one listens to with some sort of mind-altering substance close at hand.  One of the album’s triumphant moments exemplifies this in “State Of The Art”, wherein a sample of a fifties lounge orchestra is married to a deep one-drop groove and accentuated at every turn by sounds from a vintage home-organ (called the Cotillion) to create the enormously clever and grandiose backdrop for… a song about a vintage home-organ called the Cotillion.  To boot, every single vocal part on the track (of which there are many) is radically pitch-shifted, making De Backer sound like some synthetic monster.  Sound weird?  It is, and it’s pure magic.

The album’s closer is a beautiful and somber song called “Bronte”, and before you get any ideas about it dealing with classic literature, I’ll say simply that “Bronte” appears to be a namesake, that the song deals frankly with mortality and love, and that it is devastating.  I cry endlessly when I listen to it.

(Once you’ve checked this album out a few times, I recommend searching for his short “the making of” video on his YouTube page; the mad-scientist aspect of how he tailored the unique sounds present all over this recording is explained, and after watching it, one listens again with even more awe; this guy is uber-talented.)

The defining characteristic of Gotye seems to owe to the fact that DeBacker is that rare triple threat: vocalist/drummer/producer.  Throughout the album, the songs’ identities are established by their unique rhythmic aspects, their melodies, their unique timbral qualities, and many times, the way the organic sounds have been meshed with samples of vintage recordings. It makes sense that DeBacker approaches songwriting from all three directions at once: from the drums up, from the vocals down, and then from the middle OUT with all his orchestrated sounds and samples.  Keeping all that in balance is no mean feat, and the resulting album is an awesome achievement.

He’s already been around the world once promoting this album, and of the three cities he’s played in North America, I was close enough to one of them (Toronto) to get tickets and hold my breath.  Then my car experienced some trauma, and I had to cancel the trip.  So, like most of the US, I have only experienced the Gotye live show via YouTube.  But next time, folks. Next time I’ll be front row, air-drumming and emphatically singing along to all those beautiful notes I can’t hit.

 

3. Megan Slankard –
A Token of the Wreckage

Ms. Slankard has been making high quality pop music in the Bay Area for over half a decade now, but only recently has she made serious strides towards breaking out.  It’s long overdue, as she’s a marvelous talent.  She’s a gifted songwriter with an undeniable ear for a hook, and I’ve been listening to her releases since 2005.

But “…Token” secures her arrival as a big gun.  This record is captivating from start to finish, and it doesn’t open with a bang… but a flourish.  It’s become boilerplate for an indie artist to try and place the catchy toe-tapper hit in the starting gate in the hopes of keeping a listener’s attention, but Slankard has opted for artistic purity here and opens with the title track; a simmering mid-tempo number filled with bittersweet melancholy, and one in which her voice just owns you.  It’s a tough thing to create a number that is equal parts torch song and break-up lament, but for future reference: this is how it’s done.  It’s to her credit and to the album’s benefit to begin this way. From there, Slankard and her crackerjack band journey through an inspiring set of pop gems, constantly changing up the groove and the intensity, and providing the female singer/songwriter genre with every song we’ve been hoping one of the mainstays would write for the past decade. Seriously: in attendance are a slew of brilliant hooks that would have saved the mainstream careers of Julianna Hatfield, Lisa Loeb, Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Tanya Donelly, Bic Runga, or any number of erstwhile chanteuses had they occurred to other writers.  But no: they are all the product of this one particular songwriting force with a mega voice.

So if she writes such great songs, why hasn’t she been snatched up by the star-makers?  A bit of insight as to why you may not have heard of Slankard before: the star-makers prefer that their pretty-blondes-with-guitars also be hopelessly trite and pedantic, and she couldn’t be further from that.  She’s a storyteller.  The lyric she sings now will provide needed context for the lyric she sings ten seconds from now, and she’s not going to dumb it down for you.  You’re either listening, in which case you will “get it” and realize the artistry behind the words, or you’re obliviously “la-la-la-ing” along… and unfortunately, so many people la-la their way through today’s music.

As a vocalist she is quite fascinating; she often takes poetic liberties with enunciation for the sake of phrasing her melodies, and this can catch a new listener off guard.  I remember being distracted listening to some of her earlier work due to some of her inflections, to the point that I actually wasn’t sure if English was her first language.  Time seems to have tamed her uniquely stylistic tongue, however: Slankard now uses this ability to cleverly shape words rather than to confuse, and only once was I shocked to discover that one of my favorite songs, “My Obsession With Bass”, is, in fact, actually called “My Obsession With BEES”, which makes far more sense in context.  

The whole record is hot, so I should point out that the “molten”-spots include “Fair Enough And Farewell”, “Our Little Secret”, “The Tragic Life of Caleb”, “The Last Thing You Say”, and the fantastic closer, “Show Up”.

Megan has, in the past year, joined The Novelists, a songwriter collective disguised as a band formed by some friends of mine in Reno.  Their first release is due this month (January 2012), and I have *very* high expectations for both the album and the group (see “Looking Forward To…” at the bottom).

 

4. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile –
The Goat Rodeo Sessions

“Ahem” moment:  I gave Nickel Creek props for Number One years ago; I gave ex-Nickel Creek mandolin-badass Chris Thile a nod on last year’s list, and received feedback from a few people I’d previously considered discerning listeners saying that “everything Thile does sounds the same”.

That all depends on how narrow your focus is when you listen to music.  It also depends what you’re used to hearing. When I play my songs with nothing but my voice and bass guitar, I know damn well that each song possesses it’s own identity, and that the keys, tempos, meters, chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, and modulations are all unique to each song.  Nonetheless, it’s been said by some that everything I do “sounds the same because it’s all just on a bass”. This is no more true than it is of any music typified by a certain arrangement of instruments.  Remember: To old people, “All that new music sounds the same”, and they’re talking about everything since the seventies.  Keep your ears open.

So. Yes, Thile is prominently featured in this crew of superb musicians, and as he is usually the only instrument using a plectrum, his contributions are often prominent, but don’t make it such a crime to play the mandolin that you miss out on all the other amazing elements happening in this music.  Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much heralded as the greatest cellist alive.  Edgar Meyer takes the same title on the double bass.  Stuart Duncan is certainly one of the most intensely wicked and wonderful master fiddlers to walk the Earth.  As I understand it, Meyer has recorded before with Ma and also with Thile, and Duncan played with Thile at some point as well, but they’d never worked together before.

The way these four artistic beings come together is nothing short of gorgeous.  From the odd-meter-irish-jig-on-queludes of “Attaboy” to the slow, simmering, constantly modulating build of “Helping Hand”, to the shifting modal funk (yes, funk) of “Goat Rodeo” to the sudden guest vocal appearance of Aoife O’Donovan joining Thile for the more traditional bluegrass feel of “Here and Heaven”…. You get the idea.  It defines “eclectic”.

In listening to any one particular song, one keeps being tempted to consider it a feature for one of the members, but just when you believe the piece to be hitting the point, another member takes the ball and starts developing the theme, or joining in to expand it into something greater.  Or they seamlessly shift the meter so as to convince you they’re in a different time signature. Or Thile takes a breakbeat solo on his mandolin.  Or something.  Then they start experimenting with other instruments.  Thile joins Duncan on fiddle for “Where’s My Bow”, and it’ll make your head spin.  Duncan returns the favor and switches to banjo on “Less is Moi”, and it sounds like they’re doing material from Sting’s hip days as a bluegrass tribute… very cool indeed. My point is: the spirit of play on this recording is just awesome.  It could fly well over the heads of those with too many preconceived notions about certain genres of music, but that would have more to do with the listener than the album, because this is staggeringly wicked work.  Highly recommended, to some as a means of expanding horizons, and to others purely as the musical gift it is.


5. The Milk Carton Kids –
Prologue

MCK are, by far, the hardest-working act in show business for 2011.  They have been absolutely relentless in their quest to make a dent in the “New Music Industry”. I salute them, because of everyone who talks about the idea of “Give away the music for free and just tour, tour, tour ’till the cows come home”, this duo is the only act I see actually DOING IT.  

It doesn’t hurt that they are stellar in every respect, either.  Here it is: Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are filling the long-standing void left by Simon and Garfunkel.  You’re not allowed to say that, I guess, or maybe you won’t be allowed to say it until both those guys are dead, but I’m all for bucking convention.  It’s true; while these two may owe those two for setting the benchmark, on their worst day they shine as bright as S&G ever did, and most of the time they display levels of versatility and virtuosity that far exceed that fabled duo of yore.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s all about the songs.  It has to be, and both Ryan and Pattengale are great songwriters.  But they’re each also great musicians.  They’re each also great performers.  Most importantly, they have the elusive synergy that makes a duo more than the sum of the parts.  They released two albums in the past year; the first was released under both their names and featured each artist’s pre-existing material as performed live by the duo at a series of gigs.  “Prologue”, while their second release, is the first one done under their “band” moniker, but that’s not the only difference.  These guys have established as deep a telepathic connection as ever I’ve heard among performers, and it’s mesmerizing to behold.  Then there are the sonic considerations; this record was done live in the studio, and the rich overtones that result from live vintage guitars and two sonorous voices all blending into high quality microphones are just majestic.  You can truly sit a few feet away, close your eyes, and believe that you’re sitting in the studio with them.

Whereas with most of this list I dig deep to be descriptive to convince you to take the plunge and buy the music, I don’t need to with these guys.  Just click the cover and go download it for free.  It’s all part of their plan, I know, but…  is their plan working?  Have they made so much money between the two of them from touring that giving their music away hasn’t been a liability?  Will they be able to take any time OFF the road and not starve?  The jury is out.  I know they haven’t taken more than a few weeks off from touring since they started, and I know they were robbed at one point, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down, so either they are also “The Trust Fund Kids”, or maybe this philosophy is worthwhile.  If anyone happens to know, I’m extremely curious.

 

6. Tom Waits –
Bad As Me

Man, this album is so damn infectious.  Waits has made a career out of making the strident, the dischordant, the strained, the tense; the uncomfortable; the cacophony… listenable.  Nay, not just listenable, but PREFERABLE. After listening to Waits, your usual piddly pop music just won’t have enough bite for you anymore.  He gleefully excludes the weak-stomached from the ranks of his listeners, and they cock their heads to the side, squint, wince, and go back to spinning the latest Nickelback or Taylor Swift, confused as to why the rest of us would ever hunger for artistry with a unique voice.

Good riddance to them.  Waits has crafted an awesome record here, and what’s more, he’s exploring a new bit of stuff I’ve never heard him try before.  That unique voice of Waits’ has always harbored a cast of different-sounding characters, but there are a couple new singers here we haven’t met yet.  His pipes give life to every variety of gravelly-voiced miscreant over the course of the album, and for a short time it’s cool to sympathize with the dregs of humanity; largely because through Waits’ words, it’s easy to identify with them.  Musically, nearly the entire album is a tip of his hat to the music of the 40’s and 50’s (not that Waits doesn’t favor “classic song forms” all the time, but this effort is definitely pointing to that era — even when he goes out on a limb, there’s an underlying swing to it all), but true to form, it’s overwrought with lo-fi production in that delightfully ugly way that shows him at his best.  Never do the most startling and disconcerting sounds and words come together so wonderfully as they do in the hands of this guy, and he’s in top form on this record.  I know he’s put out some discs in the recent past that may have veered too far into the self-indulgent, but this is Waits with his ass on fire, folks; the goods are in the box.  So get it…  in fact, for you iTunes-folk out there, spend the extra two bucks and get the extra three songs on the deluxe version; they’re some of the finest cuts in the whole deal.


7. Elbow –
Build A Rocket, Boys

This band took my breath away and made me gasp with their 2008 release “The Seldom Seen Kid”, which I hailed as the best album I’d heard in years.  They didn’t try to make that record again.  They COULDN’T, really, even if they tried, and you can’t hold that against them.  “Build A Rocket, Boys” is the much-anticipated follow-up, and when I first heard it, I fell into the trap set by any follow-up that is “much anticipated”; I compared every note to my memory of their last album.  So I had to take it out of the player for awhile and come back to it.

This was a good call.  “…Rocket” is indeed a great album, but it’s much mellower, and far more subtle than the last.  It’s that “putting out the feelers”-album most great bands will release after a blockbuster to test the waters and explore new directions.  You just need to listen to it when you’re not expecting Elbow — dare I say it makes for a spectacular listen when you’re in the mood for some later-years XTC.  I mean that in a musical sense; lyrically, Elbow goes for the overtly sentimental as opposed to tying the point up in excessive wordplay, but that honesty is what is so refreshing about songs like “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl”, “Lippy Kids”, and “Dear Friends”.  Sometimes you just say something true, and that’s all that’s needed.

No doubt this will be looked back upon as a “sleeper” album in the band’s discography.  It might not be the first one to play on a long car trip… but then when they pull out “The Birds” at a concert five years from now, there won’t be a fan for miles who isn’t singing along.  Whereas the band made an effort to create a ‘Wall of Sound’ on “…Kid”, here they seem to be embracing… space.  Every song is full of it.  Don’t get me wrong – they still groove when it’s time. They still layer complex arrangements at unexpected junctures.  They’re still Elbow.  They’re just breathing.  And it’s constantly cool to experience.

 

8. Bright Eyes –
The People’s Key

The opening two and a half minutes of this record probably prevented the rest of it from being heard by a lot of people.  Worse yet, it may have predisposed people to dislike everything they heard thereafter.  That’s a shame, because some of Conor Oberst’s most progressive work is on this disc.  Here’s what happens when you start up the album:  A man named Denny Brewer speaks at you about evil in the Universe in a way that is squirrelly and disarming… and with a delivery that suggests more than vaguely that he was somewhat high when it was recorded.  Just when you’re wrapping your head around that brick of an intro, Bright Eyes creeps into “Firewall”, which, while cool, dense, symphonic, and pretty neat, is not the sort of song you generally open an album with unless you’re already so successful you can afford to alienate a few people.  You know all those albums up higher on the list that got kudos for putting an engaging cut first?  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.

From there on out (though you’ve not heard the last from Mr. Brewer, be warned), the album presents the qualities that landed it on this list.  Lyrically, Conor spends most of the moments here coping with being an adult.  There are moments of resignation, such as on “Ladder Song”, that I don’t think would ever have happened on a previous release, and there are unjaded moments that are downright playful… equally rare in Oberst’s history.  Bright Eyes has visited many genres on previous albums, and with each visit they’ve stirred the pot admirably.  This time around, they concentrate their efforts back on indie pop-rock… but the startling thing is that in the years since they’ve delved into this, they have LEARNED TO PLAY REALLY WELL.  Musically, this is some of the best writing Oberst has exhibited.  The chord progressions, motifs, and arrangements of these tunes are fresh and engaging, and Oberst’s decade-plus of growing into his own voice pays off in spades… finally.  There are hints of devices used by the band years ago:  it’s intriguing to hear how a song like “Approximate Sunlight” evokes memories of the songs from “Fevers & Mirrors” or how “Haile Selassie” echoes of the songs on “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” — but at the same time, the new material clearly stands superior.  The point being: If you’re going to evoke a memory of how you looked in high school, make sure you look better now.    Looking good, Oberst.

 

9. Alkaline Trio –
Damnesia

I felt like I needed to make this an “asterisk” entry, as this album is mostly a retrospective collection of the band’s landmark songs, newly recorded with very acoustic arrangements, but last year I included two albums of nothing but cover songs… so think of this as A.T. covering themselves.

Listening to the songs this way, so many things are instantly apparent:
-Alkaline Trio dwarfs just about every other power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it band in existence.  
-I’ve never heard so many similarities between power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it and traditional Celtic balladeering.  That’s way cool.  At times they sound like Great Big Sea on anabolic audio sterioids.
-I always knew the guys in A.T. were great musicians, but stripped down like this, without distorted guitars to hide behind, it’s fantastic to hear just HOW great they perform.  
-Being a power-pop-punk-rock-whatever-you-call-it band does in no way mean you have to restrict yourselves to use of two tempos, three variations of the same melody, four chords, and a sound derivative of every other band in the genre.  Listening to A.T. in this setting drives home just how consistently solid their songwriting has been.  

The collection is 15 tunes; 12 are fan favorites, 2 are new (of those, one is only about 90 seconds long and is pretty much just for fun), and I guess when you’re this sort of band using acoustic guitars, you have to include a Violent Femmes cover, and… they did.  Many of the standout cuts are at the beginning (“Calling All Skeletons”, “Nose Over Tail”, “This Could Be Love”) and end of the collection (the classic angst-anthem “Radio”)… but the whole thing is a damn fine trip.

 

10. Incubus –
If Not Now, When?

I gotta say, I did NOT expect to respond to this album like I did.  I really dig…   half of it.

Incubus has had a long and varied career, and when I was an irreverent longhair of 24, I was a fan of their exploration of heavy music on “S.C.I.E.N.C.E.”  After that, they were kind of touch and go for me, and it’s because of my love/hate relationship with Brandon Boyd’s vocals.

Hear me out: his voice has never sounded better on a recording than it does on this album — his tone, pitch, and usually, his timbre, are for the annals of rock history.  But for some reason, over a decade of riding the pop music gravy train has NOT gotten it through Boyd’s skull as to how one should marry a lyric to a melody.  At times it’s as though he seeks to weaken the inherently beautiful sounds his instrument makes by intentionally phrasing his words as unnaturally as possible.  To the point: it make-a the baby Jesus cry.

As the title track revs up to open the album, you may wonder how the pressing plant accidentally put a U2 disc in the wrong case…  but as it dawns on you that this is actually the latest in the evolution of a band that seems to try everything once, you will be pleased to note that they do the modern pop anthem really, really well.  I’ll go so far as to say that Boyd’s voice was made for this style (I’ve heard that a vocal contingency of the band’s very loyal fan base hate this direction for the group — I, on the other hand, think they’re just hitting their stride).  From there, “Promises, Promises” is refreshingly piano-driven rock about misguided groupies, “Friends and Lovers” is pretty self-explanatory, “Thieves” is overtly and enjoyably smart-ass and political, and “Isadore” recalls their sound on “Make Yourself” with a bit more of an acoustic bent.  All these songs have really great hooks.  It marks the growth of this ever-changing entity into as fine a pop-rock band as ever they’ve been in all the other genres they’ve tried.

The middle of the album is, frankly, pretty weak, but it comes back to life before it’s over.  The closing sequence starts with “Switchblade”, a strange hybrid of styles that recalls the band’s early days when Boyd rapped pretty much all his verses, though there’s definitely a very poppy element to the choruses, and still a strong showing of acoustic guitar.  It’s really cool; the stand-out track for me, and I should point out – Boyd’s phrasing is on point here; maybe because rapping doesn’t allow him to accent weak syllables as easily.  The last two cuts retread well-worn territory for the band, and probably pleased a lot of the people who keep them in business.  There’s nothing wrong with that… I’m surprised that they blazed as many new trails as they did, and it’s nice to see.  But had this collection been a six-song EP, I’d be raving about it from the rooftops.

 

Artists with new material to be released in 2012 that I’m looking forward to:

* means already released

The Novelists*
Meika Pauley
Seal
Justin McMahon
Steve Lawson*
Alex Wong
Petteri Sariola
D’Angelo
Ani Difranco
Van Halen
and…

Seth Horan

Yeah.  I said it.  Hey; it’s my blog.  :)

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Seth’s Top Picks for 2009

December 15, 2009

So here it is.  Being that I have always been:

a huge fan of music, and an obsessive-compulsive music nerd on the order of the characters from “High Fidelity”,

…it has been my habit to do a personal “years best albums” list every year. I always did this just to satisfy my own compulsions and geeky musical analysis-needs, but as more of my peers started using the new-fangled “electronic mail” and enjoying the novelty of the “CC” function, I started receiving the lists of a number of friends who did the same thing.  Back around 2002, I started sending my own list out to my fellow music-nerds and enjoying their feedback.  We all enjoyed a little back-and-forth about our choices, and I always discovered some great new music.

I think it was the following year when I posted my picks as a blog and included the link in my year-end email.  I couldn’t imagine that fans of my music would consider my opinion with much weight, but figured some would find it a novel distraction.

I got an avalanche of emails about it; almost entirely positive and awesome, and decided to do it that way every year.

Until last year.  2008, aside from being a generally stressful time in my own life, was, in my opinion, a generally dreadful year for music.  I remember trying to sort out a list, and marveling that it would be far easier to pick my ten LEAST favorite albums than anything else.  So I scrapped it.

But 2009 has been a return to form in my little corner of the music listening world, and so for whatever it’s worth to you, here’s my Year’s Best Albums List.  As has been the case many times before, many will disagree with my choices, and that’s a beautiful thing.  I can hope only that you know as you read that I listen to music very seriously; I’m that guy who gets incredibly annoyed if, in the middle of a song I like, someone starts talking to me.  Rarely, if ever, have I answered my phone while enjoying a favorite album.  If I find honesty in something, it’s very easy for me to become passionate about it, and so if you see anything that strikes you as odd on this list, ask yourself what you might be missing, and maybe give it a shot. :)

One more thing:

Of course, I myself released a record this year, but of course for the purposes of this list, I… didn’t.  That may seem obvious to many people, but it bears mention.  I remember feeling oddly flattered and exasperated all at the same time back in 2004 when I received a shocking number of messages asking me why I felt that my own album (Conduit) was “not worth including” on my list that year.  First off, I think it’d be incredibly tacky, but for those who need explanation: Simply put, I toot my own horn all the freaking time… this list is about everyone ELSE you should like.  

(If you feel that “Clang & Chime” is a contender in your music library for “best of 2009” however, I certainly won’t stop you from posting your own list! ;)

TO BEGIN: AN EXCEPTION

Here I am already with the disclaimers.  I’m starting my list this year with an Honorable Mention for the reasons that I didn’t post a list last year, and that my absolute favorite record of this year wasn’t actually from 2009.  It was from 2008, but I never heard a note of it until this April.  It is one of the most profoundly moving albums I’ve ever heard, so screw protocol; you all need to spend a few hours of your lives listening to:

ELBOW – “The Seldom Seen Kid”  — This record is epic and jaw-dropping.  It is moving on every level.  Since being turned on to it, I’ve gone and listened through much of Elbow’s back catalog, and while I’ve enjoyed a lot of that, it is glaringly apparent that life acted very strongly on the members of this band, and while they are incredibly talented, they were transformed into something much greater by their experience.

When I first listened to this album, I knew two things about it:
-The band recorded it themselves.
-Guy Garvey, the lead singer, disclosed that the experiences that influenced the songs were his falling head-over-heels in love just as he lost a lifelong friend to an overdose.

The songs take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride that pains me to believe is culled from personal experience, and the music that frames the stories is breathtaking.  Every member of Elbow plays their instrument with awesome skill, taste, and a knack for thinking outside the box, and their grasp of dynamics is just awesome.  The band goes from subtle to flat-out raucous like their lives depend on it…  and then the orchestra comes in.  Original, inspired, honest…  I still can’t listen without hanging on every note and every word.

I was alone in a car for hours when I first listened (and then listened again, and again), and I’m glad I was, because I was crying by the end of it.  When it finished, I just sort of sat there, frozen and weeping quietly.  The joyful songs will make you smile wide, and the songs of mourning will rip you open if you take in what’s being said, but ultimately, most every song on this collection is just a reminder about what it means to love.

(I’ve since discovered that the band re-recorded the whole record in 2009, live, in its entirety, at Abbey Road Studios.  Holy crap.  I’ve got to buy that CD.)

TOP TEN
(sure; there are numbers, but any album here could easily move up or down a couple notches depending on my mood)


1. U2 – “No Line On The Horizon” —
I didn’t think U2’s last album (the one with the really long title from 2004) was even close to their best work.  It seemed to me like they might have finally hit a slump they couldn’t recover from… like maybe they were going to start fading out and relying on their back-catalog of greatness.  Hallelujah, that is NOT the case.

This is a radiant record, and more than that, it is a statement: it is the biggest band in the world saying that they will not rest on their laurels just because they can.  This album is a challenge.  The arm-waving stupor of old songs like “Elevation” is absent here — you need to pay ATTENTION to these songs, and they are so worth it if you do.  Though they made a career on three or four classic-yet-predictable chord changes, here they favor new and progressive songwriting that STILL SOUNDS LIKE U2.  They’re taking risks instead of recycling a formula, and it’s captivating.

From the sound of it, they have boldly eschewed the studio shortcuts available to everyone these days.  Bono hits an occasional weak note… everyone’s singing raw, gospel-style backing vocals, and there’s no auto tune.  Edge’s guitar tone is startlingly raw, and random pick noises and slides abound; Adam actually flubs a bassline during one of Edge’s guitar solos, and they kept the take…  hell, Edge is TAKING guitar solos now…  WTF??  This is not to say anything bad; it’s all wonderfully energetic and passionately performed; preserving the humanity of the performances actually magnifies the greatness of the record.  Case in point: the instrumental break before the final chorus of “I Know I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is one of the most joyful-sounding moments in pop music history.

Thematically, Bono seems to have stepped back into a more sober valence… he’s not playful on this record; he’s back in the pulpit (literally in a few cases, but for the most part the preaching remains secular), and it suits him like nothing else.  I’m not sure, but in spots I’d swear it sounds like he’s singing these songs to his own children; there’s that much authority, and that much intimacy.  This is their most powerful offering in years; a totally worthy album that gets better and more profound with each listen.

2. Imogen Heap – “Ellipse” —
She’s taken the world by storm with this album, and rightly so…  it’s completely refreshing.  I first saw her name in 1998.  I was pounding the pavement of Manhattan with an old bandmate; we were talking our way into record label offices and giving our demo to the A&R reps, and in the office of Almo Sounds there was a big picture of the cover for her first album, “iMegaphone”.  Of the two phrases on that cover (“iMegaphone” and “Imogen Heap”), I remember wondering which was the band name and which was the title.
Heap was one of many victims of the record industry bloodbath that occurred in the early half of the decade, and I didn’t hear of her again until the song “Let Go” (from her side project, Frou Frou) made it to the Garden State movie soundtrack.  Then she vanished from my radar again until this year, when the internet basically insisted that I had no business using it if I didn’t give her another listen.

“Ellipse” is a gorgeous record, and Heap is a force of nature.  Her blend of electronic and acoustic instruments is one of the most seamless around, and the journey is largely ethereal, with intermittent bouts of hypnotic looping and eruptions of jagged square wave noise to propel you along, but the centerpiece of her work is always her sensational voice (she’s got to have at least three and a half octaves of power, and she’s a genius at stacking her synth-y backing harmonies) and the way she delivers lyrics that…   that at many times just could not be poetic unless they’re rolling off her tongue… and then, magically, they’re perfect.  Such a slick backdrop for such stark honesty is something I haven’t seen much of since the Animators disbanded.

For as much as I love this record, I take exception to the whole “groundbreaking” label that many are trying to stick on it.  Heap is wonderful; she’s gifted, she’s astute, she’s utterly musical.  But she didn’t invent this.  She takes a great many pages out of the book of one P. Gabriel.  Many of her layered arrangements (down to the synth sounds) and octave-jumping vocal licks are right off of Gabriel’s “Security” album (the one with “I Have The Touch” and “Shock The Monkey”).  That said, in an age where you can’t help but sound like your influences, what a breath of fresh air to hear someone succeed who HAS these influences! 

For once, the Grammys have a chance at getting it right.

3. Petteri Sariola – “Phases” —
The thing that impresses most people about Sariola is his guitar playing.  We don’t like to bestow honors like “changed the course of history” while people are still alive, much less only twenty-four, but the fact is he’s done just that.  He has mastered, expanded on, and codified a way of playing virtuosic guitar parts while beating out complex rhythms on the instrument at the same time.  Other players have done something close, a little bit on occasion, maybe as a quick parlor trick, but nobody has ever done it like he can.

It’s another thing that he employs this history-changing technique he invented to play interesting music and then SINGS over the top of it with fervor, passion, and wit.  Now you’re talking about something that will intimidate the powers-that-be… they will feel threatened by someone who can do so much, and to protect their feelings of inadequacy, they will actually seek to bury public knowledge of such a musician.  (Think that stuff doesn’t actually happen?  Consider that most people who write professionally about music are amateur or failed musicians themselves.)

But… the wildest thing… consider this: to change the way the guitar is played, to be able to sing so well while you do it, but then to release your body of work to the world; to try to make people feel what you’re feeling…  while you’re writing and singing in ANOTHER LANGUAGE… and then to do it WELL; to succeed in that endeavor?? That’s the most mind-blowing thing about this young prodigy. His lyrics belie his age and his voice is almost entirely devoid of any accent, but Petteri Sariola is from Finland, and he hasn’t even been on the planet long enough to get a decent rate on a rental car.

Where Sariola’s first album (“Silence!”) did the job of establishing him as a whirlwind wunderkind, here Sariola isn’t out to hit you over the head with the fact that he can play a lot of notes.  Every track, though deceptively intricate, hits the listener with musicality first.  These are songs anyone could listen to whether they understand the power behind them or not.  Whereas most progressive instrumentalists make records that require a musician to ‘translate’ how good it is to the common listener, “Phases” stands as a great record by anyone’s standards.  This kid is going to own all of us.

4. The Swell Season – “Strict Joy” —
Who could do this?  Who could have the guts to start a romance with a musical collaborator, then restate that romance in front of the whole world via a hit movie… then as the world waits for the glorious music you’ll make together… you do the unthinkable: after a few years, you can’t take the pressure, and you break up; you divorce, really.  Unceremoniously.  And you write about it candidly and scathingly.  But then to stay together musically, singing these songs with each other, really TO EACH OTHER, every night?  I’m awed by the sheer action, to say nothing of the songs themselves.

These songs are, actually, every bit as intense and beautiful as the ones on the “Once” soundtrack that propelled Glen and Marketa to stardom, and it makes sense: many of the songs from “Once” were about their individual relationships from before they met.  Now they’re about the one they’ve just shared.  The first record had imagery galore, but it almost didn’t need it because we had a MOVIE to recall as we listened.  “Strict Joy” doesn’t need any imagery to be the saddest movie you’ve seen in a long, long time, but it’s there in spades, and it is devastating.

It starts with Glen expressing restlessness, and you’re on his side for a couple tracks until he lets on that he’s a bit of a shit.  Then Marketa has her say, and you’re sure they’ve both been shit, and you want them to reconcile.  By the time their dual wailing in the outro of “High Horses” gives way to the sarcastic annoyance of “The Verb”, it’s like being the third person in the room while your two best friends call it quits.  

Unapologetic heartbreak from start to finish, and more to the point: fantastic medicine.


5. Peter Mulvey – “Letters From A Flying Machine” —
Though he’s been doing his thing far longer, I’ve only been listening to this man for about a half a decade, and I feel cheated.  I wonder… how much better a songwriter would I be if I’d been exposed to his music sooner?  He is an artist who’s always trying new and different approaches, and by that he is absolutely the most non-traditional of the ‘traditional folk’ genre that has embraced him, which is one of the reasons I enjoy him so much.

This album is basically an 8-song EP with 4 spoken-word interludes and a self-described ‘coda’ to finish things off.  Of the songs, five were co-written with friends of Mulvey’s.  This isn’t to say he needed help; his solo contributions are as fine as anything he’s done, but the collaborations definitely throw some new ingredients into the stew, and we get to hear Mulvey stretch out in directions hitherto unexplored — “What’s Keeping Erica” sounds like a Bavarian drinking song; we get a straight up blues stomp on “Dynamite Bill”, and “On a Wing and a Prayer” has sections that make me think Mulvey may have found the McCartney to his Lennon in rising star Tim Fagan.

The spoken word pieces are truly where the heart of this record is, though.  Mulvey is renown for his between-song-banter and stories, and he has immortalized a few of those stories here… in the guise of spoken letters to his nieces and nephews, which he reads over subtle instrumental backing…  and plane noise.  As a frequent flyer who has used the quiet hours in the sky to do a lot of writing, this really resonates with me, and the stories told in these interludes are every bit as great as the songs they introduce.


6. Butterfly Boucher – “Scary Fragile” —
A few years back (03? 04?) this fantastic songwriter released her debut album “Flutterby”, and I shouted her praises from the rooftops.  The record was simply spectacular.  So of course her label didn’t know how to promote her, and she got dropped.  After a few years in limbo, she did the sensible thing and went completely indie, and finally got to release the follow-up.  It was absolutely worth the wait.

Where her first record was the sound of an artist using the studio as an instrument — arranging sounds without considering how to reproduce them in a live setting — “Scary Fragile” is the sound of that artist after she’s been on the road with a crackerjack band for a few years.  It’s still her unmistakable style; her flair for playful dissonance everywhere she can sneak it in, bombastic beats, wry tales of betrayal and frustration, and all delivered with her incredibly pure, powerful voice.  Oh, and two stark torch songs to tie it all together.  This one’s a winner, people.  Check her OUT.



7. Pearl Jam – “Backspacer” —
Hey!  Remember PEARL JAM?  That band that had the world in the palm of it’s five five-five-against-one 20 years ago?  Yeah; THEM.  When was the last time you could listen to one of their records from start-to-finish and go “YEAH.”  …?

….?       Anyone?

Me too.  Until now.  “Backspacer” is a total return-to-form.  I couldn’t believe it.  This band rocks.  Hard.  And then they get introspective… and it’s intense and meaningful and almost… intimate.  And Eddie does NOT sound like he’s trying to rip off Neil Young anymore.  They’ve got a little bit of everything they do well here, and all eleven tracks happen in under forty minutes; it’s a quick, very gratifying trip, which makes it easy to do over and over again.  

No joke; this is up there with “Vs.” and “Ten”.  After three listens you’ll be singing all the words to at least five of the tunes; you’ll have the rest after a week.  These are anthems; glorious rock anthems.  Welcome back, gentlemen.  You rule.

8. Erin McKeown – “Hundreds Of Lions” —
This woman is a fantastic dichotomy.  She  has the most beautiful, lilting voice… almost clarinet-like in its purity, and on her previous efforts she demonstrated masterful delivery of everything from Belly-style indie rock to Billie Holiday-style swing, but the modern folk world is where she cut her teeth.  She won’t be held down to any particular genre, and now that she’s on Righteous Babe records, she’s exploring sonic juxtaposition like never before.

The whole record is upbeat and generally fun, employing layers of live rock instruments, electronic loops, brass bands, chamber orchestras, and McKeown’s fantastic vocals. You just have to hear her, and if you get it, you get it.  Be prepared for delightful shocks though…  the album isn’t ninety seconds in before that pretty, lilting voice is sweetly intoning, “Was it love? Was it travel? Was it true? Was it tragic? We fucked all but in name…”, and most every song thereafter deals in some way with love, yearning, and longing, with clever wordplay reminding you every so often that this is a proud lady who loves the ladies, and who is not squeamish about the details of desire.


9. ilyAIMY – “A Gift For St. Cecilia” —
Rob Hinkal and Heather Lloyd have been on the indie scene as long as I have, and whether they are performing as an acoustic duo or with their full Maryland-based ensemble, they bring incredible energy to every stage they hit.  Many artists struggle with bringing their live show energy to a tracked recording made in a studio.  ilyAIMY records almost entirely live, and they have a history of the opposite problem; in the past, I’ve wished they’d have cleaned up a few things for posterity instead of going for the whole “integrity of the moment”.

Not so here.  With this album, they have turned a corner.  Hell, they’ve lapped the block a few times.  The energy hardly ever compromises the execution of over a dozen tracks, most of which are just stellar.  Their reputation is based largely on their ability to play folk at hyperspeed whilst spitting out serious multi-syllabic slam poetry in perfect harmony.  They do that here better than they ever have (“Protest Song” and “Loosen” are just ass-kicking), but where this album stunned me is throughout the middle, where ilyAIMY isn’t trying to win over a loud bar… both Hinkal and Lloyd sing some of the most passionate and poetic ballads of the year (and considering the company they’re keeping here, that is saying something). Lloyd’s “No Blue Left” and “Ask For Me” match Hinkal’s “Trouble” and “Baliset”; each is a perfectly captured moment.  They deserve to be on this list even without those though, because the chorus in “Oklahoma Revival”, featuring a rare, contrapuntal double-lead from the two vocalists, is on par with the best work of any other act I’ve mentioned.  Watch this group.

10. Bleu – “A Watched Pot” —
Yet another alternative pop master who experienced trouble with the state of the record industry, Bleu was a big favorite of mine a few years back when his major label debut, “Redhead”, rocked my world.  This follow-up was apparently supposed to be released right on the heels of that album, but he left the label, presumably in part because they may not have wanted to release a song called “I Won’t Fuck You Over This Time”.

If that’s true, it just means the label didn’t truly get the wry, sardonic, massively self-deprecating sense of humor Bleu pours into every lyric.  He’s one of my favorite pop lyricists ever, and I’d kill to have his voice…  it’s one of the best ever.  He uses that voice to its full capability all over this underdog release, because it sounds like he’s had a hell of a time, and he’s getting it allll out.  The songs, whether reminiscing, pleading, asserting, enjoying, or lamenting, all seem to deal with facets of the same theme:  Commitment, and all the issues surrounding it.  When it comes to that, we could all use a little sadisticly catchy pop-rock, and Bleu always brings it in spades.


HONORABLE MENTIONS


Gabe Dixon Band – “The Gabe Dixon Band” —
If I had posted anything a year ago, it definitely would have included a big, sappy gush about this record.  I’ve been a superfan of GDB for over a decade… they put their first indie disc out back in ’99…  and they just announced that they’re now on hiatus “indefinitely” as a band.  That is bad news, because they just kept getting more fantastic.  Dixon is one of the freshest voices out there, and has gotten his music into all kinds of TV shows and movies.  If you could hear him right now, you’d go, “Oh yeah!  I’ve heard that tune; good stuff — I just didn’t know who it WAS…”   He’s never been able to claim his rightful place as Generation Y’s pop-piano-hero (yes, he writes better tunes than Jamie Cullum, who I also like), because he’s been a perpetual victim of lousy major label marketing.  His music lives on though, so do yourself a favor and pick up this record.

Joel Ackerson – “The Affirmation Sessions” —
Here’s what I blogged when he released this incredible album last year:
You may know my friend Joel Ackerson from the years we spent touring together. You may know him because he makes a guest appearance or two on the new DVD. You may not know him at all, but you need to change that, because Joel just released a new album that makes the hair on my arms stand straight up and makes me want to take long drives to nowhere just so I can listen to the whole thing in one sitting. Remember when people made albums that could hold your attention from beginning-to-end? My friend Joel Ackerson just put out a masterpiece, and I’m proud to have played a small part in its creation.
I belted out harmony vocals on one song, I bowed my double bass on another song, and I co-produced a third song, so if you need to know my connection with the project to accept my recommendation, there you go… but if you just want to hear a great full-length album like nobody seems to make anymore, check out “The Affirmation Sessions”.  And know my friend Joel Ackerson.

‘Nuff said. :)

Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast” —
It’s inevitable that I’m going to overlook some seriously great stuff, and of course I did.  One such example is this double record by an amazing talent who I’ve actually seen live twice.  Bird released this album back in January, which is never, in my experience, a good time to release anything (I tried it twice, remember?  No; you don’t.  That’s my point.) …and this fell off my radar after only one listen at a friend’s house.  I recall loving what I heard, though, and so maybe this collection will make my “oops” list for 2010.

Amber Rubarth – “Good Mystery” —
I’ve known Amber for what seems like ages now, and by all rights I SHOULD be telling you all about this record, but the truth is I’ve only heard three tracks off it so far, and so in my world, it truly lives up to its title. :)  
Amber made this album in the very same studio where I recorded most of mine; we released them within weeks of each other; heck, we even fan-sourced funding to release the albums in similar ways (I had 69 fans pay $50 each at the beginning of the process; she had 281 fans pay $20 at the end).  Right when we put them out, we were each concentrating on our own records.  By the time she came to Reno a few weeks back, I barely had time to see her at all, and alas, haven’t gotten a physical copy yet.
She’s on fire though; she’s making waves in the music world wherever she goes, and I have every confidence that her new material stands up to her catalog, so go check her out if you haven’t already!


BIGGEST SURPRISES…


“Battle Studies” – John Mayer.
A great many surprised people made a great many surprised comments when this album came out a few weeks ago.  The general consensus seemed to be that Mayer has gone soft/lost his edge/blah blah.  He hasn’t.  He cast his pearls before us for years…  he gave us beautiful insight with brilliant wordplay and awesome music…  and we gave him Grammy after Grammy.  For “Daughters”.  For that frigging “Say What You Need To Say”-song.  For “Waiting On The frigging World To Change”.  For “Your Body is a frigging Wonderland”.  
We’ve been asking him for this; practically begging him for it.  He’s simply obliging by making an entire record of lame schlock and standing there smugly, waiting for us to realize it’s our fault.  No use complaining; the joke is on us — he gets paid regardless.

No Ani record!
For the first time since 2000, Ani DiFranco did not keep up her
superhuman pace of releasing (at least) one album per year. Well, give her a break.  She’s a mom now, and good for her for taking some time to embrace that.  Besides, after her 2000 hiatus, she came back in 2001 with the legendary double-album “Reveling Reckoning”, which in my opinion is one of the best albums of all time, so who knows how she’ll mark the start of her third decade in ’10.

People think a “five dollar footlong” at Subway is a great deal
, and gladly pay it for that crappy bit of over-sauced blandness that takes ten minutes to not enjoy and promptly forget about…  meanwhile, artists are made to feel that they are “old-fashioned” and “greedy” for selling their life’s work; very often for the same piddly amount as said footlong with chips and a drink.  

An album can give you years of enjoyment; can make your life better; can make you think; can make you FEEL.  Please don’t read this and then go download these albums for free.  There’s no risk; I’ve weeded out the crap for you.  My picks are good.  Pay for them.  They’re worth it.  Value depends on demand, which demands that you care.

Happy New Year,

Seth Horan :)