Sunday, December 16, 2012

And Here We Are At The End Of It All...2012

Well, I would have to say 2012 has been one of the most unsettling years I've ever lived.  I can't believe it's coming to an end, and while I am somewhat relieved things turned out as they have, I also have even more trepidation about 2013, what with job uncertainties and the ability to hold on to things (like my house, or a purpose to live...).  But seriously, I've come to the realization that the world is just eternally fucked up and I must play my role.  After 16 years at one job, my wife and I will both be let go by early February 2013, and will hopefully be able to start our new business venture together shortly thereafter.  So far, finding financing has not gone very well, and it will be scary, but we work well together and will do our best to make it work.  In the meantime, I may not be able to hear and review as much new music as I have in the past few years while I get settled.  I hate Spotify because I think it steals from the artists and rips the very heart out of indie record shops, and I don't like the quality of downloads.  Even worse are leaked tracks and downloads not approved by the artist, a blight on modern music retail.  So I may have to take a short break.  Then again, I may hit the lottery.  As for 2012--a rollercoaster year for music if there ever was one--here we go with the best (and sometimes most dysfunctional) full length offerings of the year:

1) SAINT ETIENNE--Words and Music by Saint Etienne

Here I am this supposed major Etienne fan.  They even made my favorite album of 2012, Words and Music.  They toured the states for the first time in years, and I couldn't find the funds to get to NYC to see them.  Couldn't they have thrown a little love Midlantica way?  I know people who have never gotten to see them that would love to, and that's because the last time they played this town (Philadelphia) was over a decade ago!  I digress.  Simply put, Words and Music is the best Saint Etienne album, and that's saying something in a 20-year career of making records.  Granted, it had been seven years since their last effort, the amazing Tales From Turnpike House, and this time, instead of being an encapsulation of everything English, we have an encapsulation of what makes them pop music lovers.  The first thing I loved about this album is the cover art.  Ingenious!  The next thing was the glory contained within--13 stunning tracks and not one dud in the bunch!  Etienne could easily farm out the production to their friends at Xenomania for 13 similarly fantastic singles, but instead they choose to keep the variety intact by leaving in many of the most intimate and less glossy moments.  This approach to production and track sequencing is something that adds to the album's specialness.  "Over the Border" is possibly the best mostly-spoken-word track Saint Etienne have done (along with the fabulous "Teenage Winter" and hit single "Nothing Can Stop Us").  Sarah Cracknell retells stories of a history spent loving music, and how it relates to her (and her band members') lives and loves.  Songs like "I've Got Your Music" (single of the year?), "Tonight", and "DJ" are perfect examples of their polished side ("DJ" is particularly interesting for its extended portions).  In between are some of the best songs they've ever written, including the swooning "Last Days of Disco", the euphoric "Answer Song", and the elegantly sad "I Threw It All Away".  Toss in "When I Was Seventeen" (another contender for best Etienne song ever written and best song Pet Shop Boys should have written), add the splendid house-groove of "Heading for the Fair" and the definitive closer "Haunted Jukebox", and the album exudes brilliance.  I know they were selling a special edition at their shows containing a few extra tracks, and while I heard a couple of the songs and thought they were OK, this is an album that is absolutely perfect as is, and really doesn't need any extra shoulderpads.  A 10 out of 10 and album of 2012 for me!

2)  LANA DEL REY--Born to Die (Paradise Edition)

My year has been a breeze compared to Lana's (I mean, Lizzie's).  Talk about being raked over the coals, after her performance on SNL last January, you would think she had committed crimes on the worst level for the criticism she received.  While her performance was sadly shaky, her UK performances were actually quite good, and while this record tailed off rather quickly in the US, it continued to sell in other parts of the world.  Adding several more tracks of equal and excellent quality to an already excellent album only added to the allure and general aura of Del Rey.  By the way, who cares if Lana isn't her real name?  How many other artists go by fake names as well?  Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Adam Ant, Danger Mouse, Nicki Minaj, Pink, Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Joe Strummer--and the list goes on--none were their real names, so using that as an excuse for legitimacy is ludicrous.  That being said, "Video Games" has to be one of the most haunting debut singles of the past decade.  "Born to Die" was an excellent followup single that didn't really receive the attention it deserved, and then things went sort of quiet in the US.  More singles like "Blue Jeans" and "National Anthem" only solidified the album's image, that of a disaffected girl (possibly rooted in Southern California) who has seen far too much of the dark side of the world.  The video for "National Anthem" even saw her depicted as some type of Jackie Kennedy figure in a modern sort of fairytale retelling of the assassination story.  Other great songs were plentiful--"Off to the Races" had a hip hop vibe, while "Dark Paradise" is a ballad worthy of Marc Almond and "Carmen" paints a vulgar picture of a woman who has seemingly lost it all.  "This is What Makes Us Girls" brings all these concepts full circle, closing the album with its manifesto intact.  Then, later in the year, surprise!  An additional EP (more like another album's worth of tracks!) was added (or sold separately) with several more great songs.  Leading off with the Rick Rubin-produced "Ride", and featuring other great songs produced by Rick Nowels (Madonna, Celine Dion), Lana proved the faded starlet concept could be extended and even built upon.  Featuring the best opening line of any song this year, "Cola" begins with the come on:  "My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola".  Seriously, how can anybody deny this kind of caustic wit?  Her cover of "Blue Velvet" went even further into David Lynch territory, and came with an accompanying commercial video featuring Lynchian images.  While Lana gets accused of doing the fallen chanteuse thing like a one trick pony, she obviously does that one trick very well.  I struggled with where to put this album, as I actually thought it could be number one, but then it seems to function as two albums with all 23 tracks in total--a nearly overwhelming proposition for a debut.  Still, she has delivered what may be the best work she will ever produce (that remains to be seen), and brought my intrigue into full view.  I wonder where she could possibly go from here, and I can't wait to see.

3)  PET SHOP BOYS--Elysium

Before reviewing this album (which I have already done extensively elsewhere), let me just say that I absolutely love it.  I know I am not necessarily of the popular view.  People (i.e. flighty fans) have said it 'lacks melody' and is plain 'boring', but I believe it to be one of their mid-period masterpieces, full of nuance, shading, and heartfelt passion about their music and their place in a pop world.  One of the most difficult of emotions to convey in a pop album is reflection, and there is plenty of that going on here--"Leaving", "Invisible", "Breathing Space", "Everything Means Something"--all are heavily laden with reflective thoughts.  Some of these songs float along with seemingly little effort, but peer under the surface and there is so much depth and ingenuity in the songs.  Add in a couple personal trifles like "Your Early Stuff", featuring quotes from people who have given Neil their thoughts on his music, and "Ego Music", containing quotes from celebrities about how highly they regard their own work, and there is much humor to be had.  A humorous climax exists in "A Face Like That", a song that seems to have dropped in straight out of their debut, "Please" (1985).  While "Hold On" may divide fans with its broadway-isms, it does have a nice melody (courtesy of Handel), and "Memory of the Future" and "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" are two of the most elegantly beautiful songs they've ever crafted.  Even songs like "Give It a Go" and "Winner" seem to have a directness and an intentional lack of sarcasm unlike what one finds in most of their songs.  It's a shame this album is going to be seen as a general failure as it sold rather poorly for them, and they must have known it was a tricky prospect as they are already back in the studio with dance producer Stuart Price.  To be honest, the album did come out during the implosion of their company EMI, so promotion was likely not on the minds of most of their employees (chalk that one up to bad timing).  Maybe a song like "Leaving" doesn't have a place in the upper reaches of the singles chart anymore, but judgement shouldn't be heavy on their best recent single in a long history of great singles.  Sales are not always the best indicator of quality.  Elysium truly shines.

4)  ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS--Cut the World

Some may cry foul while this is made up of orchestral readings of previous Antony songs, but let me say he (along with orchestrators such as Nico Muhly) created something absolutely stunning with this record that puts most of the originals to shame.  Performed live on stage, Antony's vocals are better than ever, featuring a warmth and level of talent and charm lacking in some of the band arrangements.  His voice is so big it BEGS for orchestral backing.  His choice of collaborators shows what can be done for an album like this when done right.  Peter Gabriel tried the same thing last year with mostly positive results.  Tori Amos did it this year, but her arrangements took the songs to many of the same places the originals had already been.  Joni Mitchell has done it with her world-weary voice (also much deeper than before).  There are many ways this could have gone pear-shaped (or at least Rod Stewart-shaped), but these new arrangements (and the stunning new title track) only serve to bring out just how special Antony's songs really are.  How brave to feature and 8-minute spoken-word track as the second thing on the album, with Antony speaking of his respect for the female sex and sexual differences.  The final three songs, "The Rapture", "The Crying Light", and "Twilight" make a trilogy of three of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I have ever heard.  A revelation.

5)  MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--Electra Heart

I actually DID get to see this concert back in the summer, and wow, she put on a great show.  Moreover, what a fantastic singer she is!  To pull off what she pulled off live is quite special, and that energy translates very well to this, her second studio album.  Like Del Rey, Marina had a couple different versions of this album, originally sticking one of the best songs ("Radioactive") on a bonus disc of extra tracks.  When the album was released in the US a couple months later, the song was readded, along with a new single, "How to be a Heartbreaker", while other tracks were removed.  These sorts of practices make it difficult to review albums when they are really in a constant state of flux and mutability.  That being said, the general personna, the concept, the music of Electra Heart, was really something special, and like Del Rey, it shows a starlet on the downside of fame (this could have been subtitled "Dear Lindsey Lohan...").  "Primadonna" was one of the catchiest anti-fame songs of the year (Katy Perry should wish it was hers), "Bubblegum Bitch" straight to the point, "Sex Yeah" a lesson for teenage girls, "Starring Role" about acquiring fame above all else, and "State of Dreaming" reacting negatively to living a delusional life.  All these songs from the girl who sang "I Am Not a Robot" a couple years ago.  While the irony of the fame-stricken starlet may have been lost on many young listeners, Marina really upped her game from the last album, establishing herself as a contender to watch in the future.  A brilliant manifesto.

6)  BAT FOR LASHES--The Haunted Man

This is the first record on the list that hasn't been reviewed by me before, as it was released in October.  Natasha Khan has created some very special music with this album, resting comfortably between the sound of vintage Kate Bush and vintage Bjork.  Once you get past the (sort of) shocking cover art, you will find an album full of passion and yearning beneath.  "Lilies" has to be one of the most glorious opening songs from any album this year, layering the lightly pastoral strings and her gorgeous voice scaling upper ranges over a driving and startling synth-bass heavy rhythm that recalls prime-era Eurythmics.  "All Your Gold" is the catchiest song she's written (alongside "Daniel" from her last record), with "Marilyn" a close runner-up.  "Oh Yeah" has some very interesting vocal samples, and the title track features a full section of marching men's chorus.  However, the real diamond here is "Laura", written and arranged by the same guy (Justin Parker) who worked with Lana Del Rey on her single, "Video Games".  "Laura" may even be more stunningly haunting than the Del Rey song, and the album closes with the synthy "Rest Your Head" and the ambient dreaminess of "Deep Sea Diver".  Beck also worked on this album.  Another 2012 treasure!

7)  BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT--Make Me Believe in Hope

I have got to give credit to Rod Thomas for coming up with this album over the course of a couple years, recording at his own pace and releasing singles as needed to help finance what would become a cohesive and enjoyable album done completely independently.  Many of the songs and styles here echo music of past eras (80's, 90's), but he mixes things with such style and ingenuity that they become completely his own.  He is also a master of euphoric choruses (see "Feel It", "Cry at Films", "Waiting for the Feeling", "Disco Moment"), and has recently been giving away a mashup a day throughout the month of December (and some of them are really very good).  I think my world became a little brighter this year with Rod in it.

8)  TOY--Toy

Continuing my fascination with 80's inspired alternative rock, Toy seemed to come out of nowhere (they actually formed from the ashes of much-hyped Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong), but through their connection with friends the Horrors and S.C.U.M., Toy found a sound touching many other sounds but ultimately mixing to become something of their own.  "Colours Running Out" and "Reasons Why" are two very melodic opening tracks, as is the great "My Heart Skips a Beat", but this band have lots of other tricks up their sleeve, like the atmospheric "Dead & Gone", the wistful "Lose My Way", driving "Motoring", and krautrock inspired closer, "Kopter", which goes on for nearly ten minutes of pure shoegaze bliss.  There really is something special here, and I can't wait to hear more from this very new, young band, something unique in 2012.


Some might find this a bit derivative of the Knife and Bjork, but Jonna Lee's vision as part of Iamamiwhoami is nothing short of genius and demands attention.  After an extended web campaign that saw people speculate about their identity (even Christina Aguilera was tossed about!?!), songs came one at a time, first with the Bounty EP, and later this year, Kin, the album.  This may be electropop on a basic level, but the music has so much variety and refuses to stay in one place.  Compare the sad opener, "Sever", with the R&B flavors of "Play", and you'll get a good idea of what they can accomplish.  Closing track "Goods" is a killer disco song from a couple of artfully minded Swedes.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic music videos made by the pair, all which look very expensive and feature gorgeous cinematography.  They are an integral part of the Iamamiwhoami experience.

10)  DRAGONETTE--Body Parts

Canadians Dragonette continue to make pop music of the highest order, and this one is a gem.  Here they manage to keep the pop edge they've always had (first singles "Let it Go" and "Live in This City" are good examples), while putting a more polished sheen on the proceedings.  "My Legs" is absolutely addictive, "Riot" is like Justice with vocals, "Right Woman" and "Giddy Up" are playful in different ways, and "Ghost" their most beautiful closer.  They even had time to make a great Christmas song called "Merry Xmas", which didn't actually feature on the album, but still will be remembered for being affiliated with this period.  My only gripe--why did they leave "Rocket Ship" off the vinyl pressing?  Weird, but still a great album.

11)  HOT CHIP--In Our Heads
This band really hit their stride with this full length, and album New Order would have been proud to make.

12)  CHAIRLIFT--Something
Somewhere Bird & the Bee are killing themselves that they haven't made this album yet.

13)  GOSSIP--Joyful Noise
Poor Beth Ditto & co. deserved so much better for this fabulous Xenomania-produced lp, which is my fave so far.

14)  PASSION PIT--Gossamer
I had written them off after a somewhat lackluster debut, headspinning arrangements mix with sad lyrics and fizzy electronics here for one of the year's best courtesy of Michael Angelakos and a supporting cast including master orchestrator Nico Muhly (see No. 4 above).

15)  FIONA APPLE--Idler Wheel...
Her inner angst intact, Fiona created an album that rewards with repeated listenings.  Now if she could just shake that mugshot...

16)  JOHN CALE--Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
Fascinating view into the mind of a septegenerian who seemingly hasn't aged, always inspired and inspiring.

17)  SCOTT WALKER--Bish Bosch
Scary album from septegenerian #2 (well, he's 69), Walker continues the path of most deconstruction in alarming ways.

18)  LIANNE LA HAVAS--Is Your Love Strong Enough?
Probably my biggest slow burn of 2012, La Havas proves she has top notch vocal and writing capabilities when it comes to her mix of fractured jazz, folk, and pop stylings.

19)  NOISETTES--Contact
The only album I purchased here as a download (the imports were late and too pricey), this was the definition of versatility in 2012 with a starpowered lead singer.

20)  SCISSOR SISTERS--Magic Hour
 Another strong effort from one of New York's most engaging acts, Kiki's included.

21)  FRESH & ONLYS--Long Slow Dance
One for fans of wistful 80's jangle pop, and one to watch in the future.

22)  WILD NOTHINGS--Nocturne
These guys do not pastiche the 80's, they live, breathe, and turn it into something new and beguiling.

23)  BEACH HOUSE--Bloom
The album that finally clicked for me, and deservedly so with some of the most effortlessly beautiful arrangements on record this year.

24)  DONKEYBOY--Silver Moon
Norwegian pop of the purest order, melodies intact.

25)  CHROMATICS--Kill For Love
An album of epic proportions, and so long it barely fit on one CD (which had some trouble playing as the laser got nearer the edge), and pure atmosphere as well.

I thought more of this when first released than I do now, but it's still better than Hard Candy, with "I'm Addicted" as my favorite track.

27)  SHINS--Port of Morrow
So charming and tuneful in a Broken Bells sort of way.

28)  SINEAD O'CONNOR--How About I Be Me (and You Be You?)
After a rough promotional period with well-publicized marital craziness, Sinead delivered one of the most solid records of her career, and more people should have heard it.

29)  CHAD VALLEY--Young Hunger
Like a modern Tears for Fears with lots of guest star help, this act has piles of potential and a knack for great tunes and arrangements.

30)  ELLIE GOULDING--Halcyon
Skrillex:  "Sweet, sweet Ellie, this is so much darker than your debut album, and while the synths rock toward dubstep territory, your lyrics show how you were unhappy with my refusal to work with you..."

31)  MADNESS--Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da
Can this band still be getting better after nearly 35 years?  Shockingly good.

32)  CAT POWER--Sun
The switch in sonics does her well, but will her fans agree...?  Let's ask Iggy Pop...

33)  PRESETS--Pacifica
A baby step down from their epic predecessor, but still, moments of greatness exist.

34)  DEAD CAN DANCE--Anastasis
Thank God you are back--now could we have a little less digital and more real instrumentation next time?

35)  JENS LEKMAN--I Know What Love Isn't
This should have been higher on my list.  I think it will be one day.  Poor Jens has to suffer again!

36)  NIKI & THE DOVE--Instinct
Where Stevie Nicks reunites with Prince in Kate Bush's bedroom.

37)  METRIC--Synthetica
Another great power-pop tour de force, their confidence grows.

38)  TWIN SHADOW--Confess
80's influences from the Police to Don Henley to Prince to Talking Heads--this could only come from Brooklyn.

The finest female shoegaze of the year, even minus one twin sister.

40)  GARBAGE--Not Your Kind of People
Shirley & the Boys fulfill a dream of returning to the core of their sound to make a great record once more.

41)  2 BEARS--Be Strong
If this is Hot Chip moonlighting, they should moonlight more often.

42)  PIERCES--You & I
Enchanting harmonies from one of the best sister acts around.

43)  BARRY ADAMSON--I Will Set You Free
He's been doing it for decades, but he's never been this free and easy with himself before--so polished and assured, one hopes he's got more of these in him.

44)  PAUL BANKS--Banks
Who needs Interpol?

45)  AIMEE MANN--Charmer
Another solid effort from Boston's sharpest songwriter.

46)  GRIZZLY BEAR--Shields
A change in sound but no change in high quality.

47)  RUFUS WAINWRIGHT--Out of the Game
Mark Ronson helps Rufus deliver his most direct and assured record since Want.

48)  SHINY TOY GUNS--iii
Great return from a band who had severely lost the plot and realized the original parts needed to be reunited.

49)  MARK EITZEL--Don't Be a Stranger
Nobody does melancholy like Mark Eitzel, NOBODY...

50)  TRACEY THORN--Tinsel & Lights
...Except Tracey Thorn at Christmas.

There were also many albums I enjoyed or even listed on previous faves that didn't make this list.  That doesn't mean they were bad by any means.  Here are some of them:

SANTIGOLD--Master of My Make Believe
NO DOUBT--Push and Shove
KYLIE MINOGUE--Abbey Road Sessions
STARS--The North
FRANK OCEAN--Channel Orange
MORTON HARKET--Out of My Hands
MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Sea
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB--Different Kind of Fix
SOULSAVERS--Light the Dead See
SWANS--The Seer
KINDNESS--World, You Need a Change of Mind
PAUL WELLER--Sonik Kicks
RICHARD HAWLEY--Standing at the Sky's Edge
BILL FAY--Life is People
DIVINE FITS--Thing Called Divine Fits
SILENT FILM--Sand & Snow
SNOW PATROL--Fallen Empires
BOB MOULD--Silver Age
MUSE--2nd Law
GREEN DAY--Uno! Dos! Tre!
MIKA--Origin of Love
VAN SHE--Idea of Happiness
JACK WHITE--Blunderbuss
FUN.--Some Nights
BEST COAST--The Only Place
VACCINES--Come of Age

Now for the disappointments...(HUMBUG)...

KILLERS--Battle Born (derivative of their Springsteen sound and some really atrocious lyrics)
CALVIN HARRIS--18 Months (excepting the Florence & Rihanna songs, a lack of invention is at work)
SLEIGH BELLS--Reign of Terror (real songs don't suit them at all)
MELODY GARDOT--The Absence (bring back the smoky jazz, ditch the light latin sound)
TORI AMOS--Gold Dust (lackluster renditions of songs already recorded better by her--mostly)
RNDM--Acts (Joseph Arthur puts a lengthy diatribe out online and follows it with a rather aimless Pearl Jam collab)
EMILI SANDE--Our Version of Events (one or two good singles and a bunch of treacle)
PALOMA FAITH--Fall to Grace (listen to her first album for less vocal hysterics and better songs)
FINE FRENZY--Pines (what happened here?  too many directions, none all that riveting)
SIGUR ROS--Valtari (we've lost a pulse...)
LADYHAWKE--Anxiety (we've lost the hooks...and ditch the drrrty rock sound)
BIG PINK--Future This (best example of indie selling out)

Disappointment of the year:
TING TINGS--Sounds From Nowheresville (Nearly four years on and we get this directionless mess.  Where was their good single "Hands"?  Hang it up now.)

Up in 2013 (supposedly):

Lady Gaga (hyped by her mostly)
MIA (delayed but on the way)
Depeche Mode (March 2013)
Nick Cave (Feb 2013)
Hurts (March 2013)
The Knife (April 2013)
Delphic (Feb 2013)
Sally Shapiro (Feb 2013)
Suede (in the studio)
Little Boots (long delayed but promised...)
Cher (new single just premiered)
Iamx (new single just premiered)
Dido (hyped by her and new material being revealed)
Vampire Weekend (new songs played live)
Kate Boy (new single premiered)
Florence & the Machine (supposedly in studio)
Pet Shop Boys (supposedly in studio)
Florrie (finishing up first full LP)
Annie (may only be online EPs)
La Roux (was supposed to be 2012)
Lily Rose Cooper (aka Allen) (in studio recently)
Origibabes (Mutya Keisha Siobahn) (promised in 2013)
Goldfrapp (it seems like it should be soon now)
Daft Punk (much talked about)
Phoenix (2013)
Shout Out Louds (2013)
OMD (2013)
Alison Moyet (2013)

Where are they now?

The Cure
New Order
Elvis Costello
Nine Inch Nails
Siouxsie Sioux
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Franz Ferdinand
Annie Lennox
Marc Almond
Morrissey (touring but still no record deal?  Do it yourself--surely you can afford it)
Empire of the Sun (Is this still a thing?)
Peter Gabriel (I'm giving up on new material)
David Bowie (I'm giving up on anything--happy retirement)

I'm sure there's more...

If the world doesn't end next week (and maybe it should), Happy 2013 everybody.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Q3 2012: Music is my therapy...

Can I begin by stating that the summer of 2012 has been one of the rockiest of my life?  Finally coming out of tumultuous financial issues regarding the purchase of a new home and a move in early 2011, my wife and I were thrown a curveball in July when the owner of the business we both work for decided to close up shop. While the store has been in existence under their ownership for 27 years, we have been a significant part of it for the past 16, and are the only married couple still currently employed.  As it is a book-and-music-with-restaurant retailer, the book business is finally feeling what we in the music business have been experiencing for the past decade, now that Kindle sales have taken off.  Our story is a long one, which I will not get into detail about here (maybe I'll write a book about it one day-HA), but as it stands, this haven for independent lovers of physical books and music will eventually succumb to one of many fitness club chains springing up ad nauseum.  That being said, we have been in limbo for over two months now with no end date announcement and a Christmas season approaching.  Since music is what we know and love, we are pursuing our idea of rising from the ashes of this experience and opening our own music shop for people who do appreciate a physical buying experience.  We are excited about the prospects of the things this will allow us to do that we felt unable to do in the past, as our hands were tied with very strict guidelines from owners whose conservative attitudes in certain areas prohibited growth.  Keep your fingers crossed.

And so, while all of this has been happening, music has been my therapy and solace.  It is what keeps me going, and the excitement of hearing something new from an old favorite, or something totally unexpected that sweeps me into a new emotional world, is the most glorious of experiences.  While I always enjoy a good film or a book, the power of music continues to draw me back.  Sometimes it can be light and fluffy, almost a trifle, while other times quite serious or poignant.  It is a road map to my existence on this planet.  Now that I have given enormous weight to the subject, here's what most excited my ears these past 3 months:

1)  PET SHOP BOYS--Elysium

Alright, I know many will say this was a totally expected response, but actually, Elysium is the most unexpected and surprising album from this duo in a long time.  I guess the fact it was billed as their "California-album" made me think of the Beach Boys when it was actually a bit more Lana del Rey.  Using a lesser-known producer, Andrew Dawson, as they have has produced some of the most beautifully experimental and autumnal music in their long career.  I know they referenced his work with Kanye West as an inspiration, but West's general aesthetic is quite different than what we get here.  I would be remiss if I didn't note that the first track on this album, "Leaving", is one of their best singles EVER, and reminds me of much of their past work with Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr (even though he is not present this time).  The album is their most reflective work, and while some have blasted them for being self-absorbed and bitter, I believe they have missed the point that their lyrics have always been a mirror for their life experience, and bitterness is not on the agenda.  These are some of the most personal and beautiful songs they have ever created, and while some can be considered nearly-bland ("Winner", "Breathing Space", "Give It a Go"), there are actually quite a few allusions to reflection and love contained within.  "Hold On" even shows their West-End musical slant by using a bit of Handel and a chorus to flesh out a rather Disney-esque scene.  Closing with the most un-disco of disco songs, "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" is an homage to London's fashion movers and shakers of the 60's and 70's, a lofty topic for a pop song, no?  It may all be an aquired taste, as Neil has stated they are already working on a dancier followup.  While we wait, I shall bask in Elysium's lovely afterglow.  And really, how many albums about reflection and love are topping the pop charts these days?  Songs to hear:  Leaving, A Face Like That, Memory of the Future, Invisible

2)  ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS--Cut the World

Everybody who has done a retrospective orchestral album or wants to do one, take note:  This is how you do it.  Recorded live with string arrangements by Nico Muhly (among others), Cut the World is far above this genre mainly due to three things:  1) The lush arrangements that steer clear of typical styles, 2) The strength of material chosen for the project, and 3) The haunting power of Antony's voice.  That's not to say it isn't the sound of an acquired taste, but his ability to sing so softly and tender to full-blown wailing is breathtaking, especially in such generally high vocal ranges.  New song "Cut the World" had me near tears on first listen, and there are many more moments like that contained here.  A bold move was placing the spoken word "Future Feminism" as track #2, but it does a good job explaining more about the material and the artist (if you don't like it, skip it).  I have heard most of Antony's albums to this point, but this was the first where I really "got it", as these now sound like fully fleshed out versions of songs which were more 2D in past versions.  Alarmingly good.  Songs to hear:  Cut the World, Cripple and the Starfish, I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy

3)  DRAGONETTE--Bodyparts

Marina & co. really did it this time.  Bodyparts is a fizzy, funky pop record with a shiny metal heart at its core.  While it doesn't necessarily break new ground for the band, it does what every great third album should do, and that is solidify their style and place in the world of recorded music.  Every song glimmers with a high gloss sheen from an indie(!) band that have chosen their own path of promotion.  While it has, at times, been infuriatingly difficult being a Dragonette fan (what with the lack of physical products being available in certain countries, odd release schedules), the band is beginning to create an aura with their sound that makes you want to follow their every move.  It would have been unheard of a decade ago for a band this highly produced and polished not to have a major label record deal.  That's part of the equation that keeps them a little more hip and edgy than your average pop group.  This album bristles with intensity, from the pop overthrow of "Live in This City" and "Let it Go" to the disco-tastic masterpieces "My Legs", "Giddy Up", and "Riot".  There are lovely moments as well ("Untouchable", the closer "Ghost"), making Bodyparts their first fully satisfying effort from beginning to end.  Now bring on the sales!  Songs to hear:  Live In This City, My Legs, Riot

4)  NOISETTES--Contact

Speaking of infuriating, Noisettes have always had the problem of being one of those bands whose albums were released by a major label (ahem, Universal), only to be put aside and released a good 8 or 9 months later in the US.  Contact is their first to see a simultaneous release through their new indie label, but unfortunately there is no physical release scheduled stateside yet.  Doubly unfortunate that Contact is not selling as well as its predecessor in the UK, a real shame, as it is their most versatile and eclectic release yet.  Songs like opener "I Want You Back" have a similar feel to older Noisettes tracks, but "Final Call" and "Let the Music Play" are the kind of songs Girls Aloud would want for their reunion, while "Traveling Light", "That Girl", and "Ragtop Car" all sound like the product of three different bands.  Whether electro soul or retro R&B, bluegrass or showtune balladry, this is Noisettes most satisfying album yet.  Here's hoping for a physical US release soon!  Songs to hear:  Let the Music Play, That Girl, Never Enough

5)  NO DOUBT--Push & Shove

It's been 11 years since their last record, and although Gwen Stefani has released a couple solo albums in-between, No Doubt seem to have picked up right where they left off.  This is generally a good thing, as Rock Steady was a very pleasant album mixing reggae, new wave, R&B, and electro.  Push & Shove is very much cut from the same cloth, acting as both blessing and curse.  The band obviously are doing what they do best--writing catchy pop songs with a bit of edge, while also spinning their wheels somewhat.  I guess it would be too much to ask for them to have made some sort of great leap forward that all their fans would respond positively to, so I will just say Push & Shove is a highly enjoyable record that doesn't try to reinvent the wheel.  Songs to hear:  Settle Down, One More Summer, Dreaming the Same Dream

6)  PRESETS--Pacifica

An album sure to divide their fans, Pacifica is at once a return to darker experimentalism while also containing their most pop moments yet.  "Promises" and "Fall" are two of the most radio-friendly songs they've ever recorded, while "Ghosts" sounds like an electronic sea chantey and "A.O." is nearly scary in its single-mindedness.  It probably won't sell bucketloads, but do they even really care?  I can't wait to hear where they go next!  Songs to hear:  Promises, Fall, It's Cool

7)  DEAD CAN DANCE--Anastasis

Reuniting in a recording studio after 17 years, Dead Can Dance pull a No Doubt and sound like the pick up where they left off.  This has positive and negative consequences.  DCD are a band I always liked, and am quite happy to see them off and running again, and while their last effort, 1995's Spiritchaser, was my least favorite album of theirs, it's great to have them back doing the portentious type of goth records they always did so well, albeit a little more restrained and with less real instrumentation.  While there are some very good songs here, it is probably not going to win them new legions of fans.  Maybe a more stripped down acoustic approach would serve them even better next's hoping there's a next time!  Songs to hear:  Anabasis, Agape

8)  PASSION PIT--Gossamer

I'll be the first to admit that I hated Passion Pit.  Their last album Manners (2009) got on my nerves, generally due to the singer's voice and the clunky arrangements.  So who knew that Gossamer would be a technicolor explosion of sound and melody?  Some may claim a poppier Polyphonic Spree is at work here, but it seems as though PPit have found a way to blend melody with cut and paste electronica into a seamless blend of fun, even when the lyrics read as dour.  It's almost as if the Flaming Lips stopped trying so hard to be weird and just wrote good pop songs (oh wait, they already did was called the Soft Bulletin, then Yoshimi...)  Best feelgood pop record of the year next to Carly Rae Jepsen!  Songs to hear:  Carried Away, Cry Like a Ghost, Hideaway, It's Not My Fault I'm Happy

9)  WILD NOTHING--Nocturne

It's been a long time since I heard an album that didn't sound like an 80's pastiche, more like it CAME from the 80's.  This is it.  Virginia-based Wild Nothing come to the table with an album that includes textures from shoegaze in indie pop of the 80's, and mixes it up a little with great melodies.  There has even been talk that second half showstopper, "Paradise" was recorded using early Madonna records as inspiration (dig that Nile Rogers drum beat!).  Then the voice comes in, making it sound like Echo & the Bunnymen fronting Madonna.  Other songs veer more toward Smiths or Cocteau Twins textures, but overall, this is a big step forward from their debut record a couple years ago.  Songs to hear:  Nocturne, Only Heather, Paradise

10)  JENS LEKMAN--I Know What Love Isn't

A master of quirky heartbreak, Swede Lekman has made his first thematically unified album here, based on a broken heart.  What a sad but funny album it is.  Whether kicking things up or being kicked down, Lekman knows a good turn of phrase, in the upbeat "The End of the World is Bigger Than Love", or the zippy "Some  Dandruff On Your Shoulder" that recall the best of 80's indie pop.  Then songs like "Become Someone Else's" drip with regret and "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name" effectively acting as Lekman's "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", sparse and simple in its own beauty.  Just imagine what a mix of songs it would be if he had mixed these songs with last year's great "An Argument With Myself" EP, featuring the great "Waiting for Kirsten", written about waiting for Ms. Dunst to finish filming scenes from last year's Melancholia so they could meet.  Songs to hear:  The End of the World is Bigger Than Love, Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder, I Know What Love Isn't

11)  TWIN SHADOW--Confess
Just missing the top 10, Confess was a massive improvement on Twin Shadow's debut, and wore its retro pop influences proudly.  Like Prince fronting the Cars.

12)  STARS--The North
Stars rebound with one of the best albums of their career.  More balanced and interesting than they've been, they really hit it out of the park with the New Order-y "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It".

13)  AIMEE MANN--Charmer
Charmer continues the string of Mann's first rate material.  One wishes she had found a little more musical side streets for experimentation, but there's always next time.

14)  RICHARD HAWLEY--Standing at the Sky's Edge
Definitely his most experimental album, Hawley goes out on a limb with proggier textures and some aggressive guitar work to show he isn't just reflecting the past.  Nice work.

15)  VAN SHE--Idea of Happiness
Finally this band gets some worldwide recognition.  Like a poppier version of Cut Copy, 80's electro-pop mixes with dance and tropical textures in a sound not far removed from Friendly Fires.  They could do with fewer instrumentals and more songs next time around.

16)  BILL FAY--Life is People
My one requisite fogey recording this time comes from Bill Fay, a little known musician whose last well-known(ish) album was released 40 years ago!  After spending years doing odd jobs like landscaping, Fay was lured back to the studio by Joshua Henry, a young producer from Nebraska.  Smart move!  Sounds like the story of a life.

17)  DIVINE FITS--A Thing Called Divine Fits
I've never been a big fan of Spoon, but Britt Daniel finds a new life and loose feel in this "side-project" featuring some great electronic rock textures.  Inspired.

18)  FRANK OCEAN--Channel Orange
Controversy aside, Frank Ocean created a R&B classic here with his official debut album.  Can't wait to see where he goes from here.

19)  GRIZZLY BEAR--Speak in Rounds
A band who consistently stretches themselves, this record features some of the best and most unique guitar playing of the year.  Radiohead should be very, very scared.

20)  BOB MOULD--Star Machine
Thanks to Bob Mould for rediscovering what people want to hear him doing.  His best album in years, and right down your line if you liked his band Sugar.

other recommended albums:
PLAN B--Ill Manors
Nothing like his last (great) album, Plan B is less like Amy Winehouse here and more like the Streets (but better).  If you like British rap, do not miss.  Can't wait to see the movie.
THE HEAVY--The Glorious Dead
Striking rock and funk textures from this great indie band that keeps pushing forward.  Like a rockier, bluesier, and less kooky Tom Waits.
JD MCPHERSON--Signs & Signifiers
If you like rockabilly, this is the ticket.  Best full on retro rock album of the year.
MARK EITZEL--Don't Be a Stranger
Dark, haunting, and stirring, especially after the recent death of American Music Club's drummer.
Former backup singer creates a great folk/soul album with Matt Hales of Aqualung producing.
MEN WITHOUT HATS--Love in the Age of War
Your Beautiful Heart is the best Pet Shop Boys song they never recorded.  The album's not bad either.
I know, but damn this album is catchy.  Just ditch the Bieber duet.  Yuck.
MUSE--2nd Law
Maybe I'll like this more later.  They really do like that kitchen sink.
THE KILLERS--Battle Born
Decent album but enough with the Springsteen references already.
Bad album title for decent album.  Other than that, I just wish they'd push themselves a little more.

Somewhat disappointing:
YEASAYER--Fragrant World--Where are the tunes?
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITTI--Mature Themes--Lyrics anyone?
MAXIMO PARK--National Health--Club of diminishing returns
BLOC PARTY--Four--They should have stopped with three.

And a rethink:
FIONA APPLE--The Idler Wheel...
It took about 300 plays and a drug arrest, but I've decided I actually really like this album!  Talk about the definition of a grower.  Now go out and buy a copy!  FREE FIONA!
What albums are you grooving to now?  (Sorry if I have offended your favorites)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Q2: A Tad Preemie, but whatevs...

So, this is actually a little early with impending scheduling issues approaching, so I thought I'd better get this out ASAP, especially since there are SO MANY FREAKING GOOD albums to talk about this quarter.  With a general dearth of good albums being released in Winter 2012, it seems as though the Spring was absolutely ON FIRE.  When you are finding it difficult keeping up with everything new, that can only be a good sign.  Without further ado, here are my personal picks for best albums of Spring least, the ones I managed to get onto this list:

1) SAINT ETIENNE--Words and Music by Saint Etienne
Without question the best album of 2012 to date, this one's gonna be hard to beat come year's end.  Their first new full album in 7(!) years, Sarah, Bob, and Pete have come up with a record to rival their best full length, Tiger Bay from 1994, 18 years ago.  While Tales From Turnpike House (2005) came very close, this one even beats that, coming from a very personal place in these pop musicians' hearts, reflecting on a life lived in a pop world, first as observers, then as participants, now as elder statesmen.  "Over the Border", with its spoken-word verses, may be one of the most personal songs they've ever written, mentioning old record labels and music journalists, and wondering if Marc Bolan would still matter once children entered their lives.  "I Threw It All Away" may be one of the most lovely things they've ever recorded, full of piping recorders in what one can only describe as a depressing waltz.
This album is not without its corkers either.  Songs like "Tonight" and "I've Got Your Music" are some of the most euphoric notes they've committed to tape in their over-20-years of existence, as well as "DJ", a stormer dedicated to those tune-spinners that try to make you feel something on a dancefloor.  Follow those up with the Saint's most melancholic Pet Shop Boys-styled moment, "When I Was Seventeen", and the magical closer, "Haunted Jukebox", and you've got perfection.  I won't say anymore because I'm sure I'll be saying more later this year, but for now, this is IT.

2) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--Electra Heart
Some reviewers have been a bit harsh to Marina, and personally, I cannot understand it.  The girl has TALENT.  She writes amazing songs with catchy hooks, and had the inclination to seek out some of the top producers in the business to see her vision of self-obsessed popstrels through.  If Britney Spears had recorded Electra Heart, there's no way she would have been in on the joke.  Marina gets it.  An album stuffed with so many good songs that the lead single, "Radioactive", has been relegated to bonus track status in the UK (wisely it is being added in the US).  The kind of single that could compete with some of the best from Rihanna isn't necessarily even the best song here, with strong entries "Primadonna", "Starring Role", "The State of Dreaming", and "Power and Control", not to mention the extremely smart "Sex Yeah" (a modern female empowerment anthem if there was one), Marina has crafted one of the strongest pop records beginning to end in recent memory, and stronger than her first--there's no sophomore slump here! 

3) BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT--Make Me Believe in Hope
An album that I keep coming back to again and again, Rod Thomas has created an ultra-modern masterpiece on an indie level that synthesizes so many elements of pop music's past to perfection.  You know the sign of a good album when your favorite song is constantly changing, and there are so many inspired moments here, it's hard to pick a standout.  Some of these songs existed for a bit of time before the album release as Rod was recording and compiling them bit by bit, creating the record solely on his own budget, an admirable feat.  When people look back on this era and talk about how professional sounds can be made with less expensive equipment at home, I will look at this album as a masterpiece debut of the era.  I simply cannot choose a favorite song as they are ALL GOOD.

4) HOT CHIP--In Our Heads
Hot Chip have been making albums for a while now, and when they began I found them to be an acquired taste.  Well it took a while, but now that they've progressed, I've definitely acquired it.  This (their fifth album) is their best yet, with lots of throwbacks to bygone eras without ever sounding derivative or a pastiche.  The beats are turned up a little here, which is a good thing as ballads are generally not their forte.  It's hard to pick a favorite song, but right now it's between "Don't Deny Your Heart" and "These Chains".  You'll probably see this on the year-end list too.

People were griping before this album arrived that it wasn't another Night Work.  Well, there can only be one of those, and Magic Hour ticks most of the boxes one would want from a followup without losing energy.  "Only the Horses" is a great single, but there are lots of other good things here as well, and arguably featuring more variety than any other Scissters album.  The three opening songs are all killer: "Baby Come Home" is all retro funk, "Keep Your Shoes" a kooky, kicky technopop romp, and "Inevitable" a heartfelt mid-tempo ballad recalling the sounds they mined on their debut.  The only song that doesn't really work for me is "San Luis Obispo", but it's a fun little song on its own that sounds like mid-70's Dr. Hook hits the beach.  Closer "Somewhere" is a favorite.

6) GOSSIP--A Joyful Noise
This may not be the complete success that the Gossip were looking for when they signed on with super-producer Brian Higgins and Xenomania, but this record does manage to take their sound in a more sophisticated and adult direction without losing much of the fun.  Beth Ditto sounds like she's having a good time, and turns in some of her best vocal performances ever, especially on tracks like "Casualties of War", a bit more of a slow burn that allows her to really find the heart of the song.  Some are pining for the thrashy, less-melodic and glossy Gossip of old, but right now, they've made a little go a long way, and "Move In the Right Direction" is one of the best songs of the year.  Props also to "Get a Job", "Get Lost", and "Love in a Foreign Place".

7) DONKEYBOY--Silver Moon
I'm even surprised this album is so highly placed, but I really do like it, and much better than the previous one.  "Silver Moon" is a great opening track, while "City Boy" and "Drive" get even better.  There really isn't a weak song on this album, which manages to be just electro enough to satisfy tech-heads but enough warmth and melody to still be pop.  It's an endearing affair from start to finish, and "Pull of the Eye" is a favorite.

8) CHROMATICS--Kill For Love
Because I wanted a CD for this album, I went through the process of ordering it from their website as it is not available in regular stores or regular distribution channels.  They also only charged $5 for it...bargain!  The album IS a little long (nearly 80 minutes), and when you don't have a lot of time in the modern world, you try to hear as much as you can in your limited frame.  There are long, ambient stretches here that could probably be shortened, BUT, that would disturb the mood of the record and the art being created.  Sonically closer to M83 usually fronted by a female is the closest thing I can think of this sounding like, and if you've seen the movie, Drive, you've heard some of their music, which is decidedly hypnotic.  Still, there is some great 80's-derived alterna-pop here, especially in the forms of "Lady" and the title track.  Also, beginning with a mopey electronic-inspired cover of Neil Young's "Into the Black" is genius.  Favorites include "Back From the Grave" and closer "The River".  Five years in the making!

9) GARBAGE--Not Your Kind of People
Like Saint Etienne, this album took a seven year break to make, and while Etienne were recording singles and putting out deluxe remastered editions of their past albums along with collections, Garbage were essentially mothballed after an abrupt ending to their last tour and Shirley Manson becoming an actress.  During this period she came up with solo material that the record company rejected as being too dark (basically too much like Garbage), so she & the guys patched things up and came up with an energized record which will go down as one of their best.  The first three songs are some of the best they've ever written: "Automatic Systematic Habit" throbs with electronic intensity, "Big Bright World" is poppier and reminiscent of album Version 2.0, while first single "Blood For Poppies" could have been from their 1995 debut.  I am deducting only half a point as the album is absolutely perfect ending with track 11, "Beloved Freak", but then come four bonus tracks displaying relative levels of success.  I guess if I think of them as tracks that would have been used as B-sides, I may be able to overlook them a little more--they're not bad, just average.  Still, the greater portion of this record is the best album of the quarter to come from a band that came from roots based in 90's alternative rock and grunge.

10) NIKI & THE DOVE--Instinct
One of the strongest debuts of the year is this Swedish couple who sound like a cross between "Running Up That Hill"-era Kate Bush and other Swedish art-duo, the Knife.  What separates Niki from the Knife is their ability to be extremely catchy and somewhat more accessible, especially on big opener, "Tomorrow", full of choirs that sound dropped in from a Florence & the Machine record, while "DJ Ease My Mind" is like Lykke Li's more capricious little sister.  There is also a witchy Stevie Nicks-meets-Bat for Lashes vibe on this record as the startlingly good "Mother Protect" alludes to.  A US release is planned for early August from Subpop.

11) FLORRIE--Late EP
More great electropop offerings from the British lass, soon to deliver a full length.
12) METRIC--Synthetica
This band is finally beginning to get the attention they deserve with this album, entering Billboard US at #12.
13) MORTON HARKET--Out of My Hands
A-Ha's frontman goes solo again, but means it this time with this elegantly understated jewel.  Featuring a new Pet Shop Boys song.
14) LEMONADE--Diver
Alluring album for summer lounging with light R&B touches and a great raveup in "Big Changes".  A winner!
15) THE PIERCES--You & I
Bringing back memories of prime-era Bangles (not the cheesy stuff), this Coldplay-endorsed sister act has it.
16) SOULSAVERS--Light the Dead See
Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode does vocal duties on this which acts as the best LP he's made outside his regular band.  A bit of gospel and blues never hurt anyone.
17) KINDNESS--World, You Need Another Change Of Mind
Again virtually self-made, this album sits somewhere in the strange Prince-influenced record category, but I find it absolutely intriguing.
18) RUFUS WAINWRIGHT--Out of the Game
Sometimes Rufus the man can be a lot to take, but paired with Mark Ronson, he has created one of his best albums, and the best since the Want series.
28 years is a long time to take off, but PiL did and managed to come back invigorated with one of the best albums they ever made.  Astonishing.
20) A SILENT FILM--Sand & Snow
Like Keane but better.
21) KEANE--Strangeland
22) GEMMA RAY--Island Fire
23) AMANDA MAIR--Amanda Mair
24) MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Sea
25) PAUL WELLER--Sonik Kicks
26) TANLINES--Mixed Emotions
27) VIOLENS--True
28) LADYHAWKE--Anxiety
29) ULTRAVOX--Brilliant (another 28 year layoff with good results)
30) BOBBY WOMACK--Bravest Man in the Universe

The other good ones:
BLONDIE--Panic of Girls (I FINALLY got a deluxe CD--a winner for best package)
SANTIGOLD--Master of My Make-Believe
NICKI MINAJ--Roman Reloaded (Deluxe Edition)
ADAM LAMBERT--Trespassing
CRIBS--In the Belly of the Brazen Bull
NORAH JONES--Little Broken Hearts

There were some disappointments as well:
SIGUR ROS--Valtari.  Or when slow gets slower.  I'm not even sure Jonsi was around during half this record.
PALOMA FAITH--Fall to Grace.  Another slowie.  Let's call it adult contemporary.
FIONA APPLE--Idler Wheel...  Maybe I'll grow to love one day.  Right now the sound of a bleating sheep over stark percussion by someone who should be medicated isn't floating my boat.  She IS talented though.
EMELI SANDE--Our Version of Events.  Album didn't live up to the singles.  Snoozy at times.
SAM SPARRO--Return to Paradise.  Instead of channeling his R&B electo side we get Jamiroquai.

BEST REMASTER--The Everything But the Girl series of the first four albums.  BRAVO!
WORST REMASTER--Morrissey's travesty in cutting up his best solo album, Viva Hate.  Removing "Ordinary Boys" was alarming, replacing it with something that sounds like a rough demo distressing, but cutting nearly two minutes of "Late Night, Maudlin Street" is INEXCUSABLE.  People who were angry about Kate Bush tinkering with Red Shoes and Sensual World would be appalled by this hackjob.  I think I'll keep the originals, thanks very much.  Oh, and Morrissey, have you gone INSANE??

Finally, what do we have to do to get DRAGONETTE and LITTLE BOOTS to announce their official album release dates?

Q3 can't possibly get better than this.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Donna Summer, Queen of Music

When Michael Jackson died a few years ago, I took a special time out to comment on this blog at what a sad waste of talent the end of his life was, and how he seemed to throw everything away.  This year of our Lord 2012 we have lost several musical icons already--Etta James, Levon Helm, Whitney Houston, Adam Yauch--and while I could take the time to comment on every one, let me just say that, while some were harder to believe than others (Yauch in particular), others like Houston seemed like it was just a matter of time.  I guess what angered me the most about Houston's sad death was, similar to Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson, these artists still had gifts to give, and they threw their talents away.  In Houston's case, I suspect she realized her voice was gone forever and sank into a depression spiral there was no recovery from.

The passing of Donna Summer this week is an incredible loss, and unlike a Houston or Winehouse, Donna never threw her talent away, and generally took care of her asset (her voice), sounding much more vibrant and alive on her 2008 album Crayons, recorded at age 59, than Houston did on her final album, I Look to You, recorded when she was just 46.  I will never forget how Donna's music changed my life as a child of the 70's growing up in a remote prairie town, where the extent of my popular music listening had been soft rock duos like the Carpenters and Captain & Tennille, light female pop singers like Dionne Warwick, Helen Reddy, and Cher, and inoffensive fare like the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert, and random Beatles records.  I remember absolutely loving "Last Dance" as a 10-year old, then "MacArthur Park", culminating in my first purchases of 45's for "Dim All the Lights", "Hot Stuff", and "Bad Girls" (I didn't have the money to buy the full Bad Girls double LP, so I bought an ABBA LP, Super Trouper, instead).

Had it not been for the influence of Donna's music, I would have probably continued down the path I had begun to walk with Styx, Journey, and Kansas (living in Kansas, being a fan was a given).  Sure I had the odd ELO and Billy Joel record, but most of my records were sending me straight to 80's hair metal heaven. Donna made me realize it was possible to cover a whole range of styles while staying a strong and soulful singer (the Pointer Sisters did this too, although not in such a direct way).  Her records had elements of dance, rock, pop, new wave, electro, swing...even a little country.  She didn't oversing her ballads, but gave them just the right amount of poignancy and heft.  She made me think about music from around the world as well, especially Europe, as her past connections drew her there through the time she had spent overseas.  Without Donna, I may never have discovered Grace Jones, Madonna, or Eurythmics, whose Annie Lennox probably had a bigger influence on me as a budding teen musician than any other artist of the time in the way she combined a certain British detachment infused with an incredible soul voice.  Others like Lisa Stansfield and Billie Ray Martin would later follow, and even pop girls like Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue have a certain connection to the dance music Donna produced, and that is why all roads then lead back to Donna.  I knew I would never really be able to sing like Donna (being a man and all) but her style did lead me to discover lots of incredible male singers who operated in a similar style like Martin Fry or Green Gartside.  Even bands like Duran Duran owe some of their beats-meet-sequencer construction to songs like "I Feel Love". 

I cannot help but feel a certain part of my childhood has died this week.  Donna made some great videos like MJ ("She Works Hard for the Money"), could hold long notes like Whitney ("Dim All the Lights" in particular), and had an ability to reach a large audience similar to a Beyonce or Rihanna.  She was a diva but never seemed cold or mean like Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey could sometimes be.  Listen to a greatest hits album (Gold is quite good), and you will realize that Donna's music will continue to keep her alive through its energy and heart.  As someone who knows almost every word to every major song of Donna's, her music is arguably more timeless and groundbreaking than any of the aforementioned icons listed above, and for a prairie kid growing up in the 70's, what more could you have wanted?

Friday, April 27, 2012

2012 Q1: aka The Big Sleep

What do I have to say about 2012's music scene so far except zzzzzzz.  Seriously, there have been some great records this year, but I would venture to say there were more truly great records at this point last year.  What that says to me is that many things are being delayed until the summer for maximum impact due to the touring season.  Hopefully that doesn't mean some things will go unheard, because I hate it when seasons become too crammed with new music--a good problem to have, I guess.  So, without further ado, I am giving my assessment of the best full length releases from the first three months of the year.  Try not to fall asleep...

1) LANA DEL REY--Born to Die

The best record of the first part of 2012 is also one of the most controversial, not so much due to the content of said record, but mainly due to public opinion of del Rey after her infamous Saturday Night Live performance in late January.  One could say it was one of the worst performances to ever grace the SNL stage, but I like to think of it more as awkward, like somebody who just wasn't ready for such a big platform, and as her performance a couple weeks later on David Letterman showed, she could do much better.  Performance blunders or not, Born to Die is a fantastic album about heartbreak and despair.  Some tracks carry some serious swagger, such as "National Anthem", which has a certain Nancy-Sinatra-as-Gangsta vibe, but it's the haunting cuts like "Video Games" and "Born to Die" that really slay.  Del Rey does disconnected and disaffected very well, and she feels the pain like thousands of Britney wannabes trapped in a Lynchian-Mulholland Drive-esque world of starlets with faded dreams.  This record is all about Hollywood and the obvious disappointments that come with it.  Plus, "Dark Paradise" sounds like a long, lost Marc Almond song.  Startling, and unlike anything else out there.


I suppose this is fairly predictable, but I was really hoping MDNA would rate higher.  What we really get from Madonna here is a very solid type of party album, but one that comes with a host of issues that hold it back from being a masterpiece.  First of all, the running order is no damn good.  "Girls Gone Wild" is a poor entry for first song (with some misspoken lyrics about being "heartly sorry", whatever that means), and the immediate detour into "Gangbang" does little to elevate proceedings by being possibly the strangest song ever to feature as track 2 on a multiplatinum artist's comeback record.  My favorite track comes third ("I'm Addicted"), as it does a much better job balancing the experimental electro side with the accessible pop hooks.  Songs like the single "Give Me All Your Luv" could succeed were it not for some dodgy chant-along lyrics that don't really work for someone in their early 50's, or "Superstar" with its tropes connecting dedications comparing upstanding societal figures like Al Capone and Caesar with Abe Lincoln (because he "fights for what's right.")  Only Madonna could have written words like these, so I KNOW she contributed to this album.  "Falling Free" is an amazing glimpse at Ray of Light-era Madonna seen through that producer's eyes (William Orbit), featuring her best vocal performace since 1997.  One wishes there was sometimes a little bit more breathing space for her voice, but she did come up with a full platter of catchy tunes (even if "B-Day Song" deserves to be left on a beat-up cassette somewhere).  "Turn Up the Radio" seems like the safest bet for a hit single, so we'll have to see what happens from here.  For now, I think I'll have to scramble the playlist in the hopes it makes more musical sense.

3) SINEAD O'CONNOR--How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?

She may be a complete wackadoo, but Sinead O'Connor can really sing.  Not the kind of melismatic showy kind of singing perfected by Whitney Houston and stolen by Mariah Carey, or the nuanced kind, like Sarah McLachlan.  She is no soul diva, but she has soul, and she doesn't yell, yet has a powerful howl that could put Florence Welch in the back row.  How About I Be Me is Sinead's finest album in at least a decade (maybe more), and while it has several shifts in mood and lyric, it is all undeniably her.  Any song that begins with the lyrics, "I bleed the blood of Jesus over you and over every fucking thing you do" can only be a Sinead tirade against the Catholic Church (the pedophile-blasting "Take Off Your Shoes").  There is also much joy on this album, such as "Vine St."'s depiction of her marriage ceremony, and the glorious "Wolf is Getting Married", alluding to her wild past being somewhat tamed.  Unfortunately this album was plagued by bad press when it was released, as Sinead was going through some terrible things related to her bipolar nature.  Now it's time to let the music speak for itself.

4) CHAIRLIFT--Something
Fantastically innovative pop from New York duo with echoes of Hall & Oates AND the Cocteau Twins.  How many bands can you say THAT about?  Brilliantly produced and the vocals are top notch.

This band continues making great music, even after one of the Deheza twin sisters left.  Now just a duo, the level of professionalism here continues to grow.  Try listening to "Lefaye" and not doing a Stevie Nicks spin! Otherworldly.

6) 2 BEARS--Be Strong
Possibly the best party record so far this year from Hot Chip's Joe Goddard side project.  DFA Records is home to this stellar house-influenced full length.  "Bear Hug" will make you smile, but songs like "Work" and "Take a Look Around" are the real soul of this album.  And to think, a new Hot Chip record is on the way as well!

7) PIERCES--You & I
These sisters from the south keep getting better with each release.  This one was produced by Guy Berryman of Coldplay and comes up sounding more like Mamas & the Papas meets Fleetwood Mac than anything else.  Disarming and haunting simultaneously.

8) BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB--A Different Kind of Fix
In a very short amount of time this band has switched from one style to the next, but have hit on something really special with this third release, also showing their ability to mine a great melody while keeping the arrangements innovative and original.  More please.

9) BARRY ADAMSON--I Will Set You Free
A grand dame of unusual music, the latest from former Bad Seed Adamson finds him going for a more direct approach, allowing his croon to find its natural state more often than not.  There are also some quite great moments here, as on the lovely "If You Love Her" or the dark noir of "Trigger City Blues".  If you haven't heard Barry, you are missing nearly 25 years of great unique British soul, funk, and cinematic music.

10) MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Ocean
The Fields return with what is most likely their least self-conscious and most humorous and heartfelt album since the magnum opus, 69 Love Songs.  "Andrew in Drag", a paean to drag queen love, is a surefire winner in and of itself, and while the album never again reaches that high, there are many other songs that make wonderful additions to their musical canon.

Other notable entries:

KAISER CHIEFS--Start the Revolution Without Me
JAMIE WOON--Mirrorwriting
SNOW PATROL--Fallen Empire
SLEIGH BELLS--Reign of Terror
SNEAKY SOUND SYSTEM--From Here to Anywhere

Fear not followers, there will be a lot more music to come by mid-year, and there may be a special post or two along the way if I can be arsed to do it.  Thanks again for reading, and hopefully you'll find something you can join me in loving!