Posts Tagged ‘Punch Brothers’


Seth’s Top Picks for 2012

January 7, 2013

Happy New Year, everyone.  We’re still here.  Mayans can suck it.  And here are my top album picks for 2012.  Each year somebody stumbles across this for the first time, so let me dispense with the disclaimers and caveats.

This is just me, spouting my opinions.  There are no required “categories”.  I didn’t listen to much prog, jazz, or hip hop this year, and I liked the stuff here better than the prog, jazz, and hip hop I DID listen to.  So there’s no need to write me, irate that I didn’t include any prog, jazz, or hip hop.  Et cetera.

I’m a music snob and a musician; the worst combination to find in someone wearing the hat of “music critic”, and you’re completely entitled to scoff at my choices.  But this isn’t about competition; this is me, waving a flag for what I think are worthwhile albums that people should spend their money buying and their time listening to.  I have no agenda here other than to keep the quality of the music in your life HIGH.

Also, the order of presentation is, as usual, somewhat elastic.  There are days when any of these releases could slip up or down a few notches, depending on my mood.

One more thing: One of my picks from last year won a Grammy, and two of my picks from 2011 have been nominated for Grammys in 2013… it has to do with their cut-off date for eligibility and other assorted blah-blah.  My point in mentioning it is that I find it a promising trend — I mean, I haven’t agreed with the Grammy Awards that much in over a DECADE.  To boot, one of my picks from 2012 is nominated for a Grammy this year…. who knows if any will make the 2014 list.

It either means that the world is waking up to what’s good, or I’m slipping in my old age.  I’m going with the former.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Therefore, I recommend that you LISTEN ALONG as you read by opening up my iTunes Playlist with selections from these records,

or click on each album cover to listen more specifically.



1. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young?  

Each and every time these guys play, they raise the bar for what can be done with acoustic instruments.  Specifically, the acoustic instruments used in the traditional makeup of a bluegrass band: guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, and double bass.  Punch Brothers have been around (under different names) since shortly after the demise of legendary bluegrass/pop group Nickel Creek, when mandolin-master-of-not-unappealing-voice Chris Thile attempted to get together a bunch of guys who could play as maniacally and sing as prettily as he can and make everyone else in the world wish they were them.  It worked.  These guys are amazing, fun, and unstoppable, and this is their best work yet.

The band teamed up with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Amber Rubarth, Norah Jones, Mutemath, etc) for this, and the difference from PB’s last album (“Antifogmatic”; see my 2010 list) is instantly audible. This whole record conveys the ambiance of a live performance in a small theater — there are no startling shifts in aural texture or instrument placement from song to song, and each track seems to have a similar amount of reverb/delay/ambiance.  The brilliance of this “set it and forget it” production approach is that it lets all the interest and surprise come from the musicians themselves; from the dynamics and arrangements of the songs.

And damn, but there are some excellent songs on this record.  Case in point: “This Girl” is absolutely one of the best songs of the year on a number of levels, and it’s rare that I’d give that honor to a song that’s not a heartstring-tugger.  It’s the rollicking, fun, one-sided conversation between a man and the God he abandoned until he met a girl who hadn’t… hilarity ensues.  Given Thile’s history of not-so-humorous stories of relationship trouble between believers and non-believers (check out “The Blind Leaving The Blind” on the group’s second offering, “Punch”), it’s great to see that time has steered that message more towards satire and away from plain old…   ire.

There’s a burden on a supergroup: What does “the band who can play anything” choose to PLAY??  Do they constantly flex and go over the top to prove themselves by injecting odd time signatures and wild key changes into every song?  They do, but nowhere near as much as they used to, and I won’t lie — that’s what got them to the top of this page; it’s welcome.  They got the secret formula just right.  These songs are a bit milder in their presentation than PB offerings of the past, as if King turned down the “Prog Knob” just enough to make them palatable without losing their essence.

That is not to say that they don’t cut loose; no way.  The opening track is propelled along by rapidly pulsing, impossibly in-tune double stops from bassist Paul Kowert (who seems to have found the “overdrive” knob on his preamp — nice!!), and the award-winning Noam Pikelny’s banjo playing on the minor and moody “New York City” sounds like someone lit his hands on fire.  Violinist and harmony vocalist Gabe Witcher shines in both roles in the haunting “No Concern Of Yours”, and in a PB studio-first, he takes the reins as the lead vocalist on the gritty, funky “Hundred Dollars” in a way that makes me want more more more.  Guitarist Chris Eldridge only makes his presence known for brief but intense moments in each song, as if to remind us that if he wanted to, he could blow the roof off this place one-handed, but instead he chooses to add to the greatness of the ensemble.

One more thing — late in 2012 the group released an EP of tracks (mostly cover songs) that didn’t make it to the full-length release.  It’s called “Ahoy!”, and I’d have included it in the “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, but since you’re already reading this, I’ll save you the scrolling.  Buy them both.  Hugely worthwhile music here.  Fifty years from now, these guys will be the stuff of legend, and your grandkids will be asking you why you weren’t listening to them/catching their shows at every opportunity.  Don’t let your grandkids down.


2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

When Apple first came on the scene, I was immediately struck by her voice… There was something about her smoky alto that was so DIFFERENT than anything else on the radio…  When her second album dropped a few years later, it hit me immediately: she doesn’t use any auto-tune. Then as now, it is so refreshing to listen to a singer who can actually SING; who embraces the ever so occasional imperfection in a vocal performance and uses it to emphasize the sentiment they’re trying to get across instead of flatlining, tan-and-bland, all across the board.  She’s got a wicked instrument in her throat, she knows how to use it, and she has never failed to impress.

The instrument located less than a foot ABOVE her throat, however, seems to encounter more than occasional discordance… and Apple has made a career out of letting us in on her internal monologue. And thank goodness for that. She makes the emotional turmoil inside her head into the jarring-yet-captivating poetry we’ve come to love from her. She’s always been a righteous drama queen; neurotic and sardonic, yet at the same time aware of the tragic circumstances she creates… it’s like she has bouts of rational clarity in which she writes these brutally honest songs of self-analysis… and then revisits the songs when she’s back down the rabbit hole, snarling and howling the self-critical lyrics as if she can’t believe that bitch had the nerve to call her out publicly. The album opens with “Every Single Night”, which is her, coming to terms with living inside her own head, and floats through various scenarios explaining how that head of hers has sabotaged her relationships with partners, from the process of picking them to the way she seems to keep messing them up…. but by the end, she seems to be reaching some kind of reconciliation with herself, and puts forth the idea that she might yet find solace.

Musically, the majority of these songs showcase Apple doing what she does best: exploring chord voicings at the low end of her very old-timey, saloon-sounding piano. No matter what else surfaces, it and her voice are the constants.  She always plays it in a way that accentuates the most dissonant notes in any line, and it’s what gives her music that dark-and-quirky feel; the thing her many imitators can’t duplicate.  It’s one of her stamps, and she uses it to great effect all over this collection.

Producer Charley Drayton, who serves as the percussionist on each track, is also a responsible party for this album’s fantastic sound. Most of the songs are backed by some kind of clacka-lacking, finger-drum-thumping, thigh-slapping, brushed-snare drum-rolling, bells-and-chimes-a-dinging, off-kilter rhythm.  This doesn’t thwart Apple’s lyrical impact though — in fact, these upbeat arrangements help a few songs from sinking under their own morose weight, and add a playful spirit to her self-depricating sarcasm on others.

Of note: the big exception to everything I’ve just mentioned is the album’s closer, “Hot Knife”. It is, for lack of another explanation, a fun little sing-along. As far as I know it’s the first time she’s ever recorded a massive vocal overdub fest, and it’s sure to have female a cappella groups at universities all over America hard at work for the next year.


3. Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind  

What a delightful surprise this album is.  Folds posted sneak-peeks of all the songs well in advance of the album release date, but I only heard three of them. I thought he was messing with us; each of the tunes I got a look-see at were deeper cuts from this collection; not the instantly gratifying, ultimately catchy, raucous and irreverent awesomeness the band make its hallmark back in the late nineties. These songs were good, but they were… MATURE, and not unlike the more adult contemporary fare from Folds’ solo career.  I was annoyed.  What was the point of reuniting BF5 if they weren’t going to be jackasses again??

And yet, when I hit “play”, the opening fuzz-bass of “Erase Me” slammed out of the speakers, and all was again right with the universe.  THIS is the album we hoped we were getting back in 1999 when they gave us “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner”; it’s got the advanced musical sensibilities and cool harmonies of that era in the band’s existence, but the delivery and spirit of play the band exudes on each cut calls to mind their heyday, when even the most serious and heartbreaking songs of “Whatever And Ever Amen” had a sharp sense of irony.

There are equal parts “jackass” BF5 and “storytelling” BF5 here, and it’s a good balance.  For every introspection (“Sky High”, “Hold That Thought”, and the brutal-yet-uplifting “Away When You Were Here” are quite worthy), there’s an in-your-face rocker (the title cut, “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”, and “Draw A Crowd”, whose hook you will never get out of your head… even if you really want to).  When Ben is funny, he’s hysterical, and when he’s sad, you’ll be crying too.  Drummer Darren Jessee contributed the song “Sky High” to the collection (and he’s no joke; he co-wrote the band’s biggest hit ever — remember “Brick”?), and in a move that made me grin, they set a piece of author Nick Hornby’s prose to music to create the album’s mighty title track.  Folds and Hornby did a whole album this way back in 2010, and it was awesome.  This cut is even more of that same awesomeness.

The decade-plus apart doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the trio musically… these guys can still play their asses off.  From Fold’s face-melting piano solo in the opening track, to Sledge’s eternal mastery of lead-distorto-bass on “Draw A Crowd” and “Do It Anyway” (also note his tasteful double bass playing on “Sky High” and the brilliant and steady outro to “Hold That Thought”), to Jessee’s spot-on, zero-to-sixty drumming (the way he drives the bus on both the title track and “Draw A Crowd” are Keith Moon-worthy)… There may be those subdued, mature passages, but there is never a dull moment. The single, “Do It Anyway”, may be remembered more for the video than the song itself (because Fraggles are awesome), but it’s fun regardless, and it features the band jamming away relentlessly.  You can hear it: they’re having an absolute blast.  And it’s contagious.


4. Butterfly Boucher – (self-titled)   

Boucher has released three records in the past decade, and all three have made this list.  Particularly this year, when so many of my all-time favorite songwriters released albums that didn’t move me (Ani Difranco, Aimee Mann, Peter Mulvey, Andy Davis, Foy Vance… the list goes on), the fact that she’s three-for-three should tell you something; you’ve been missing out on this chick.  If you love real pop music, get hip to Butterfly.

Boucher is equal parts 90’s smart pop, 60’s retro, and 70’s punk, with today’s dance floor sensibilities and a penchant for occasional and delightful 80’s schmaltz. She’s one of those self-producer-plays-every-instrument-and-has-a-killer-vocal-range types who can make an entire professional album in her bedroom with a few instruments, tubby toys, kitchen utensils, and a microphone… and near as I can tell, since leaving the major-label-nightmare a few years back (remember when her label put her on a “Shrek” soundtrack back in the day…?), she’s become the reigning queen of Nashville indie-pop-rock.

The opening cut, “5678!” (the quintessential choreographer’s cry, but possibly also a tongue-in-cheek response to Leslie Feist…?) got a low budget video and some decent promo, but it deserved much more; it stands up to (and in fact, crushes) every successful pop hit of the past year.  You won’t just hear this hook, shrug, and move on; it will grab you and make you listen repeatedly. “The Weather” is as ballsy a rock tune as ever you’ll hear on a pop record, showing off Boucher’s killer pipes and chops on every instrument.  It kicks serious ass, providing great contrast to more synth-heavy, danceable offerings like “Not Fooling Around” and “None The Wiser”. Undertones of 60’s baladeering abound most prominently in the gorgeous “The Warning Bell”, and syncopated, gritty-yet-synthy anthems like “I Wanted To Be The Sun” and “Take It Away” embody everything I love about her as an artist; engaging but not overused chord progressions, gorgeous harmonies belting out bittersweet lyrics, and all propelled by a slamming rhythm section.
If there’s anything you can count on in a Butterfly Boucher song, it’s that it will have at least one cool-ass modulation that you will not see coming, and that will totally capture you no matter how many times she throws it at you.  She’s the goods, and I wish she would (finally) get her due.  To boot, the album is only seven bucks on iTunes. Deal of the year right HERE.


5. Bob Mould – Silver Age

I don’t know why the last Grammy-winning Foo Fighters record didn’t grab me like this ass-kicker does.  This thing is relentless. Mere moments after I was made aware of it’s existence, I typed the following statement:

“Each of my eardrums is now vying to be this album’s personal slam-hound.”

And I’m sorry to be so crass, but it’s as true now as it was then.  38 minutes of face-smashing non-stop straight-ahead rocking like I haven’t heard anyone do in a long while (and yes, I was effusive about Pearl Jam’s latest offering not too long ago, but this is definitely superior with regard to the face-smashing non-stop-rocking).

Bob’s music stands apart from all the younger acts that produce records in the same vein because of two characteristics: His anthemic writing style embraces tension rather than embracing release… and regardless of where he is in a musical phrase, he always EMBRACES NOISE.  After digging on this album, anything produced after 2001 will sound… clean. Polite. Apologetic.  Bob has never been ashamed of the messy sounds that drums and electric guitars make.  He’s never tried to tame them; in fact his recordings have always sought to make the kick drum thump your chest, the guitars rattle your ribcage, and the bass punch you in the sternum.  He’s gotten *really* good at that by now. The only problem with this was that he used to make it happen at the expense of his own voice in the mix, but that has largely been remedied here.  At only one point do I find myself looking to tweak the EQ to bring out the lyrics a bit more.

This is the kind of album that gets me speeding tickets. People, if you remember Husker Du: this rocks harder.  If you remember Sugar:  this rocks harder.  If you’ve been a fan of Bob’s solo stuff but have become convinced that he lost his edge:  IT’S BACK, and it’s… hard.

And if you’re a youngin’, and would only have a frame of reference for Bob Mould if I told you that a snippet from one of his old tunes is currently used as the theme music for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”…   Yes.  This rocks much harder than that, and you should *really* give this old dude a shot.


6. John Mayer – Born and Raised

Mayer used to sneeze and get a Grammy nomination. It was usually for the smarmiest, pappiest tunes he would include on otherwise brilliant records.  This year he produced what will no doubt be hailed as one of the best albums of his lifetime, and the Grammys are snubbing him so hard it’s audible.

This got hyped as a “country” album. And that’s both fair and unfair. Unfair because that label automatically tainted it for thousands of people before they ever heard a note, when in fact it is no more country than albums considered “classic rock” by Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, or Crosby Stills & Nash (in fact, on the chorus of the title track, you’ll swear it’s actually Nash and Crosby singing harmony — and you’ll be correct). Fair though, because it is, in part, truer to the sound of actual country music than anything that say, Taylor Swift has ever made (…you see what I did there, right?).  There’s even a great pub-music style tune that’s at least as good as that song Mumford and Sons keeps recording over and over again.

It’s not supposed to be a barn-burner, but this a mysteriously accessible album. There’s always a payoff to whatever degree you’re listening, but it varies greatly depending on how deep you want to go.  You can let it wash over you without picking up a single thing from it, and if so, you won’t hate it but you may not love it either.  However, if you turn it up when you want to get lost, you’ll find plenty to fascinate you.  If “Heavier Things” was the soul-searching of his twenties, then “Born and Raised” is the reckoning of his thirties. Beautiful work, John.  If your Grammys are the measure of how much you’ve pandered in the past, then you should be absolutely proud to have finally made a record that won’t get one.


7. The Novelists – Backstory   

Singer/songwriters are tortured souls, and the hardest thing for tortured souls to do is play nice together, and the more any particular solo artists have going for themselves, the more reticent they usually are to even try teamwork.  Oh, and jazz musicians are the last people on earth who will shelve their hip gigs to play diatonic pop music and assist in singing four-part harmonies with said tortured souls.  I could go on with the gross generalizations, but suffice to say that this junior supergroup’s existence proves them all wrong.

Four seasoned singers: a gravelly baritone (singer/songwriter Joel Ackerson), a classic tenor (ridiculous young jazz bassist Zach Teran), an Irish tenor (singer/songwriter Eric Andersen), and above them all, the melismatic soprano of Megan Slankard (check last year’s list at #3).  Ready to go out on a limb with me?  Imagine Elvis Costello, Josh Groban, Bic Runga, and a young Elton John all standing around the same microphone.  Easy, right?  Of course not. These are not easy voices to make blend into a cohesive whole.  Usually, when you’re putting together a vocal harmony, you seek out voices that blend together, and what that entails is each voice sacrificing its own character for the sake of many voices sounding as one.  It’s the reason famous singers with distinct voices usually sing their own harmonies in the studio… because otherwise it can distract a listener.  No; if you’re going to do harmonies with four voices so very different from each other, they had better be *awesome* singers.

…and goddamn, so they are. There it is, at some sudden point in every song… that SOUND. It’s unlikely greatness, and a sound that, if enough people hear it, will take them wherever they want to go.

The arrangements of every number are breathtaking.  Each writer contributes at least two songs I’d place on par with the best I’ve heard from each of them, and the sequencing of the record makes for an engaging listen that leaves you yearning for more than just these nine tracks.  Each has an individual, professional music career.  They also live in three different cities spanning two time zones (San Francisco, Reno, and Boulder).  So here’s hoping that this group stays together for the long haul, that they keep letting the whole be stronger than the sum of its parts, and that their next release is a 12-songer.  If they last, they will move mountains.


8. Soundgarden – King Animal

Soundgarden: Masters of that elusive “The record’s skipping… oh wait, no it’s not…”-badass rock groove; the grunge warriors who took those otherwise rehashed pentatonic licks to a new plane of existence. They were always that band everyone tried to emulate, but who nobody ever COULD emulate.  Simply put, they are the world’s best avant-garde-blues-rock band, and as the opening track laments, they have indeed been away for too long.

And where the hell have they been?  Kim Thayll and Ben Shepherd have been virtually invisible since the band’s last album sixteen years ago, while drummer Matt Cameron has played with Geddy Lee, The Smashing Pumpkins, and most notably in Pearl Jam since 1998. Chris Cornell, of course, was busy making his three solo records, that album he sang for Slash, and the whole overblown charade of Audioslave…  all of which turned out to be underwhelming in comparison to what he once did and has done again with this band.

Those close to me know that I have always been fascinated by Cornell’s fantastic upper vocal register, and when he uses it to its potential, it hardly matters to me WHAT he’s singing — I still find it captivating. It’s like hearing the hunting cry of some rare mammal in the arctic tundra, and it’s worth listening to just because it’s so uncommon.  As Cornell hasn’t treated us to this many high notes in a few years, it’s interesting to hear how their timbre has taken on a new character.  It’s angrier; more primal, like it’s coming from a different place in his voice box… or perhaps it’s just a new hellfire demon being housed in his earthly vessel. Whatever the case, he sounds positively wicked.

….as does the whole ensemble.  At their best, the songs seek to force you into submission, and most achieve this. They aren’t pulling out many new tricks here; with one startlingly cool exception (no spoilers, but you’ll either love it or loathe it, and I love it…), all the sounds you hear are sounds you’ve heard from them in times past; the components have simply been brought together better than ever before. Lopsided, slightly dissonant ostinato riffs meeting bombastic, surgically precise drumbeats… it’s like jackhammers locking in with sledgehammers, and it’s mighty.  Add Cornell’s voice over the top, singing at least as many hooks as on 1994’s “Superunknown”, and you get the triumphant return of a cutting edge group who’s proven they still do this better than anyone else.

Oh, and there’s cowbell.  And it’s brilliant.


9. Justin McMahon – Second Chances and Irreparable Mistakes

Full disclosure: I played bass on four of the songs on this collection.  Regardless, I feel not a bit awkward about endorsing it as one of the best of the year as far as modern folk albums are concerned.  Justin has been Reno, Nevada’s best kept secret for at least half a decade now, and it’s gratifying to see him finally touring the country and promoting his music in earnest.

McMahon has a rare and irreconcilable combination of traits: he is a hopeless romantic, full of enthusiasm for the sweetest sensations life has to offer… but also possesses a disdain for the human condition that places him somewhere between a mild sociopath and a total misanthrope.  Add to this that he is also a consummate linguist and poet, and you begin to see why he makes such an interesting songwriter. The beauty of his lyrics comes from the push and pull between the poles of his psyche — depending on the song, it’s anyone’s guess which will get the upper hand — will he throw his sense of self-worth down the well, or does hope spring eternal, and will he press on to get it right next time?

I’m not doing him justice with that, as his delivery is anything but comic. He articulates his stories in ways both blunt and satirical that will either wound you deeply or make you wish you’d thought of it first. Then suddenly he’ll be a life-loving optimist, giving you a much needed boost of serotonin, and bolstering you for the rest of the message:  Yes, life is suffering. We are going to care about people who are going to make awful decisions.  We’re all going to let down the people we love.  We’re trying as hard as we can.

It’s not the easiest message to hear, but it might be the most important.


10. Beck – Song Reader       

This is so retro it’s nouveau.  Beck’s been a hipster since before being a hipster was disdained by hipsters, and this is arguably the biggest hipster move EVER.

This is not a sonic record.  It exists only as ink on paper… like all music did prior to the discovery of electricity.

And I love it.  It’s brilliant.

Because what does this record sound like?

WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO.  That’s the point.  Because it’s not a record yet.  At least, not a record by Beck.  He never recorded any of these pieces, so if you want to hear them, it’s up to you to perform them, or to find musicians capable of reading music and having them do it.  You can perform the songs exactly as written, or interpret them any way you are moved to.

The album is the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s both the antithesis of the digital era (take that, piracy!) and the best thing that ever happened to it all at the same time. Nobody ever needs to hear these songs the way you do, but if you feel like contributing to the planet and want to demonstrate how you’ve honed your version of one of these tunes to perfection, you can upload a video of it to a website set up for that very purpose:

Then you can listen to the versions others have posted, and expand your ideas about what can be done with a piece of music.

I think it’s one of the coolest ideas ever (and I’m not alone in that… I mean, it was also considered very forward-thinking about a century ago), and as soon as I decide which of these tunes will sound best on a solo bass guitar, I’m going to get involved myself.


HONORABLE MENTION – Kimbra – Vows (2012 Version)

Last year I chose “Vows” as my full-throttle #1 pick.  My only lament was that the release was Australia/New Zealand only, and that the rest of the world had to get creative to procure a copy.  2012 saw the record released to the rest of the planet.  However, American record labels being what they are, they had to mess with it.  “Vows 2012” is not the same album as “Vows 2011”.  Four of the songs were cut and six were added.

Not that the new songs are “bad”… compared to most other artists, they range from passable to quite decent; it’s just that the placement (and REplacement) of these new songs totally destroys the sequence and vibe of the original record, and that was part of what made it so powerful.  Never underestimate the power of song order; it’s what takes you on the listening journey.  The original album is simply magical, and the impact of most of the songs is severely diminished on the new version.  One of the most important transitions on an album; the first thing that determines how people will perceive the work — it’s the transition from Song One to Song Two.  On the original album, this was brilliant, and set up the listener for the ride to come.  On this version… total let down. Another big point is how you END a record, and the last song on the original, “The Build Up”, was an esoteric, bold statement that solidified in my mind that Kimbra is a legit artist with something to say.  This version ends with an 80’s throwback collaboration with the dude from Foster The People.  It’s like Kimbra joined The Human League.  Not an awful tune, but ultimately disposable.

No, what puts her here for (sort of) the same album she got #1 with last year is a song that, had it appeared on the original version, would have put it on my Desert Island List. In fact, thanks to iTunes playlist creation, I now have my own customized version of “Vows” that does just that. The tune is called “Come Into My Head”, and it is my JAM.  I can listen to this tune on repeat for an hour in the car and be just fine.  That NEVER happens.  It recalls the best seventies horn-section funk with a playful, spacey, P-Funk style twist, and I can’t get enough of it.  If you dug the original record, download this tune (and to be fair, the live version of Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” has a pretty spectacular payoff if you listen long enough, so that one too), and cobble them into the first version for non-stop listening awesomeness.


Seth’s Best of 2010

December 18, 2010


Eagerly anticipated.

Or something.

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.  :)

-Seth Horan