Saturday, January 30, 2016

David Bowie: Life On Earth



I've written before about my relationship to David Bowie's music and art so this need not be a retrospective piece. It's rather an attempt to describe the size and shape of the hole left behind by his sudden and shocking death.

Sudden, that is, to us who weren't aware of his 18 months of living with cancer and its treatment. And shocking because Bowie had been so incredibly present ever since that glorious morning in 2013 when Where Are We Now appeared on our Vimeo feeds as if from the ether. 

Almost ten years of near-silence preceded The Next Day and one thing that brilliant album threw in sharp relief was the low level yearning we had all been living with during that time without Bowie. I can detect the sense that he understood our longing, even if only a little. He could have called the song Where Am I Now?, after all. Now we must contemplate the rest of our lives without him. Part of the shock is also that he was one man who contained multitudes for us and now all of that is gone. Unlike The Beatles, there is no truncated version of Bowie to whom we can all cling, no Paul or Ringo to offer the slightest bit of solace. 

I realize that I'm using "we" more than usual. I don't deign to speak for others, but in the days immediately following Bowie's death I found myself stereotyping madly, searching each silhouette that passed to see if they fit into the classification "Bowie fans." A confident walk, a crisp fashion choice, headphones, good shoes ("Your boots are shit," Marc Bolan told Bowie the first time they met), just searching for any clue that someone felt the way I do about David Robert Jones of Brixton.

This of course was a fool's game because I long ago made the decision to mostly keep my artistic leanings on the inside. In high school when my friends were dying their hair, giving themselves piercings and jailhouse tattoos, and painting their Doc Martens with nail polish, I continued on getting my haircuts from a guy called Paris at Gimbels East and wearing jeans along with worn button down shirts passed down from my father. You wouldn't know from looking at me that Bowie, Pere Ubu and Joy Division were bleeding from my Walkman, not to mention Hendrix and Coltrane. You had to get to know me to know what I was into.

So why should I expect any different from passersby on a street in 2016? It was really just a shellshocked symptom of the loss I felt, the need to be in a group of likeminded people, to believe that I was surrounded by people that got it. Based on my initial skim of social media, I think other people felt the same, hence the "we."

This also reflects the "Bowie spoke to freaks and outsiders" point of view, which is certainly part of the story. "Give me your hands," he implores on Rock'N'Roll Suicide, "You're not alone!" Hearing that, the cozy strum of Soul Love, the tour de force of Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise), Everyone Says Hi, or any number of other songs, gives me a warm glow of inclusion and belonging. Maybe you feel it, too. And never forget, that acceptance is a two-way street. We who "get it" took Bowie into our hearts and our lives without dismissing any of his quirks as simply "weird." He showed us a way to live and by going along with it, we showed him a way to continue.

Bowie also demonstrated how far out you could go and still be in - not just popularity-wise, but in the human race itself. Recording Low at the tail end of a two-year bender that destroyed his health and probably contributed to the end of his first marriage, he managed to make a break-up album that was both optimistic and futuristic - no blood on his tracks - yet still anchored in emotion. 

Thinking of those cut-outs I examined on the street I also think about others like me, who allowed the various shapes and shades of Bowie's looks to stand in for our inner states, like an action painting of our souls. And while we may not have dressed like him, we took note of the perfect gesture, the well-timed movement, the calibrated gaze, and allowed them to infiltrate us, changing the way we entered a room, sat in a chair, moved on the dance floor. This was the lore of years of study - mime, kabuki, Elvis - passed down and distilled for our daily use.

So while I sometimes sought the collective experience in those first days of grieving, there was also a part of me that wanted to be alone with the sorrow. I stayed off Spotify, where all listening is public, and out of the comment fields, listening mainly to bootlegs and thinking about how I would write this piece. I was somewhat surprised by this response so I went deeper into self-examination. It stopped me in my tracks when I realized the connection between my first child's short life and Bowie's truncated renaissance. My son Jacob (who also had a January birthday) died at 2 1/2 from cancer. Though there is no comparison between my love for Jacob and my attachment to Bowie, there are parallels in the joy I felt when my son was born, so long awaited, and the excitement Bowie's return engendered. 

Then...crushing disappointment and sadness, the air let out of the balloon for good. When Bowie died, that sense of deflation felt very familiar, harmonizing uncomfortably with those dark days of 1999 when my son succumbed to his disease. This realization helped me switch between public and private modes of bereavement around Bowie. I imagine it's possible that there is some other public figure who could inspire such thoughts and feelings - for others, not for me - but I can't think of who that could be. Once again, I suspect I'm not the only one feeling this way, which is why I'm sharing these deeply personal investigations. 

The concert bootlegs did help, and still do. Naturally, my usual source made several additional recordings available: Budapest 1997 (interesting), Paris 1990 (his voice uncharacteristically shot), and two Ziggy- era gems, one from London's Rainbow Theater in 1972, and one from Radio City Music Hall in 1973. I really gravitated to the latter as not only is it an extraordinary performance, but because of where it took place it's very easy for me to picture the surroundings. It's also an audience recording and I find myself relating to the little crowd around the taper. This is my virtual collective experience, listening to these serious Bowie fans react the way I might have had I been there. 

"When's the album coming out?" one of them says after the Spiders play another song from Aladdin Sane, which had yet to be released. "Wow," another says after a beautiful take on Space Oddity. At the end of the show, after the encore of Rock'N'Roll Suicide, one of them simply states: "Unbelievable. Unbelievable." But my favorite moment immediately precedes an intense version of The Supermen. After a spare and spectacular solo performance of Jacques Brel's My Death, we hear some electronic swoops and swooshes causing the crowd to start cheering wildly. "Oh, God," one of my new friends exclaims and another says, "I've never seen anything like it!"

No, he hadn't, and neither had we. Nor shall we, ever again. 

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Best Of 15: Singles & EP's


By now we know that not only is the album not dead, but the resurgence of vinyl (and now even cassettes) seems to be mostly album-based. While the black plastic discs are still a tiny part of the overall music market, they are one sector that has shown continuous improvement over the last few years, which is something to celebrate. Even so, there is still a place in the output of artists for short-form releases like singles and EP's. In some cases, an artist will do their best work in this area. In others, it's just a stopgap before their next album. Either way, I would hate for these great songs to get lost in the shuffle - literally - Read on for my favorites from the year just passed.

The Redeemed

If you've been following closely, you will know that I was a big fan of the early EP's of Tahliah Debrett Barnett, who performs as FKA twigs. So I was surprised to find her first album, last year's LP1, to be a bit of a snooze. So I'm happy to report that M3LL155X (pronounced "Melissa") finds FKA twigs at the top of her game, from the fabulously creepy cover and video, to the mesmerizing songs. Producer Boots helps construct dark soundscapes for twigs' melodic and lyrical flights of fancy, without ever letting the momentum lag. I might be the only one who feels this way, but if her EP's are this good, why bother with albums?

Appreciation for the Staple Singers is on the rise with the release earlier this year of Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive look back at their extraordinary career. Mavis Staples, however, is very much in the present, having made two albums with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy in recent years. While there was nothing truly wrong with those records, they failed to catch fire for me. She's now working with Son Little, a Philadelphia-based musician making a name for himself with an updated take on soul, blues and R&B. Your Good Fortune, the four song EP they put out in the spring, bodes well for the future. All four songs find Mavis in great voice, with the first two written by Little and the last two classics. It's tough to take on Blind Lemon Jefferson's classic See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and make it fresh, but she digs deep and pulls it off, with an energy belying her 76 years. Long may she reign.

Serving No Wine...

In the case of the haunting All Is Forgiven by Aleksam, I'm starting to wonder if it is forgivable to put out a song this cool and then...nothing. Hopefully 2016 will see more to come from the talented duo of Sal Masakela and Sunny Levine.

Moses Sumney is also deeply talented, a singer of originality and spiritual depth and a songwriter who traverses folk, soul, and jazz with the ease of a natural polymath. After last year's brilliant Mid-City Island EP, this year he gave us Seeds and Pleas, two ethereal meditations that are hopefully part of something bigger.

The music of Jordan Lee, released under the name Mutual Benefit, has a rare combination of sturdiness and fragility to it, which makes it enormously appealing. Not For Nothing, his entry in Weathervane Music's Shaking Through series, is a fine countryfied addition to his catalog. As his last full-length album was 2013's brilliant Love's Crushing Diamond I'm hoping for more than one song in 2016!

New Blood

The first time I saw Spires, it was almost like a live rehearsal, but the last time I saw them they tore up the Mercury Lounge in front of an audience that had no idea who they were, blasting through a short set of their hyper-driven psych rock. Their five-song self-titled official debut finds them slightly tamed, but still tunefully pursuing their vision of the late sixties. Keep up with their songs here so you can sing along when you see them live - which you absolutely should.

As a micro-genre, I'm not sure "doom folk" ever took off, but John Joseph Brill's band Burning Beard gained some attention as a prime mover in that area. Now he's on his own and has released a four-song EP, Pieces, and a single, The Grape And The Grain, that are the strongest things he's yet done. He seems to come by his world-weary, sepulchral voice honestly and he knows how to write songs that are built to last. 2016 could be his year.

I came across Novelty Daughter when she opened for TV Girl one sweaty night at Shea Stadium last August. I loved the mix of big beat electronics and her honey-toned jazz-inflected voice, which made for a beguiling combination on stage. Now you can hear it for yourself with Day Of Inner Fervor, the lead off single from her debut album, Semigoddess, out 3/25/16. Be hip - preorder.

Old Favorites Return

My #1 album of 2014 was Hiss Golden Messenger's Lateness Of Dancers, which left me hungry - even starving - for more songs from M.C. Taylor. He had a busy year on the road promoting that brilliant album so I consider us fans lucky to have gotten the Southern Grammar EP, which featured two new tracks alongside a smoking live version of the title song. He Wrote The Book is one of Taylor's warm-blanket specials, a comfort to my soul, and Brother, Do You Know The Road? is the kind of song you can really inhabit, a widescreen tale told through music. New album in October - I think I can contain myself until then.

Beck's Morning Phase had the #2 spot for me in 2014 so my antennae were up when I got notice of a new release at the beginning of the summer. After the acoustic elegies of Morning Phase, I knew he would have something different up his sleeve. But I didn't expect a bid for song of the summer, which is essentially what he gave us with Dreams, a spectacular slice of pure pop, gorgeously produced by Greg Kurstin. Supposedly, there's more delights along these lines coming soon. Until then, keep dancing to Dreams.

Both my wife and I had our mind's blown a few years ago by Any Port In A Storm by Scott & Charlene's Wedding, the project of Craig Dermody, an Australian singer-songwriter. As described in his classic (to me, anyway) song Fakin' NYC, he literally came to NYC with a dollar and a dream, managing to make a go of it with his incisive lyrics and jangly take on 90's slacker rock. The melodies are always great, even when he sings off key, and his guitar solos always give me a buzz. Delivered brings the story forward with three tight new songs along with an epic (for him) and wonderfully sloppy cover of Elton John's Bennie And The Jets. When a formula is this good, why mess with it?

Field Music, the band helmed by David and Peter Brewis, has often gone on hiatus to allow them pursue other projects (see under School Of LanguageSlug and Frozen By Sight). While they did release Music for Drifters earlier in 2015, a nice series of instrumental cues for a 1929 documentary about Shetland Island fishermen, it's now been nearly four years since their last album of songs. So I was pretty excited when they dropped The Noisy Days Are Over to tease Commontime, their fifth album, which is due on February 5th. This clever song pokes fun at aging with an intricate and spiky arrangement that owes as much to late Steely Dan as it does to mid-period XTC. Good fun is on the horizon.

Also on the horizon? David Bowie. I'd pull a mic dropping "need I say more?" at this juncture but I do need to say a little more. I mean, have you watched the video for the outrageously stylized Blackstar yet? If not, get to the biggest screen you on which you can find YouTube and watch this thing. Even if there wasn't an album coming on January 8th, Bowie's 69th birthday, this one song would be evidence of an ever-questing master working at top form. I'm still trying to catch up with him on this song and Lazarus, the other single, which is also from a musical he's producing based on The Man Who Fell To Earth. Has the Star Man become a Blackstar? We'll just have to wait and see...

All the songs above, except Novelty Daughter's, are in this playlist - put it on shuffle or play it straight.



You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae
Best Of 15: Hip Hop

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Of 15: Classical & Composed


The preceding 12 months brought the all the usual thinkpieces about the death of classical music, the decline of CD sales, the struggle to fill concert halls, etc. But for us listeners, there was plenty of sounds to surprise and delight. I'm probably only scratching the surface but here goes...

New (Mostly) Music, New Recordings

After the triumph of Become Ocean in 2014, no one would have looked askance if John Luther Adams had decided to take a year off. But the man has a work ethic so there were actually not one but two fascinating new releases in 2015. The Wind In High Places is an exquisite collection featuring three works for strings. The title work, played to perfection by the JACK Quartet, is an ethereal work which asks the players to keep their hands off the fretboards and play only open strings and harmonics. But knowing those technical details is not necessary to enjoy the airy tangles of harmonies woven together by Adams. The second piece, Canticles Of The Sky, was composed for 48 cellos and sounds like a ribbon of pure sound. You might find yourself breathing differently as you listen. The album closes with Dream of the Canyon Wren, also played by the JACK, a series of descending glissandos with some of the puckish wit of Harry Partch. The album is Adams in his prime, which means essential listening.

Ilimaq: Under the Ice, an electro-acoustic collaboration with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, is a little bit more of a specialty item. Five movements of spacy sounds, pounding tom toms and subtle clatters and clangs, without much structure that I can find, makes for a piece I don't listen to often. But if the mood is right, there's nothing else like it. As with The Wind In High Places, the recording is a masterpiece in its own right, finely detailed, sonically rich and involving.

Like Adams' music, the pieces on Clockworking by the Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect also seem in touch with the natural and physical world. From Beacon To Beacon, by Hafdís Bjarnadóttir, even features the sound of pounding surf or blowing winds among its spiky eplorations. Special notice should be taken, here and elsewhere, of the sparkling harpsichord of Guðrún Óskarsdóttir. The six works were commissioned from five local composers (all women, I might add), including superstar Anna Thorvaldsdottir. But while Thorvaldsdottir is the most well known, I will now be keeping an ear out for the others, especially Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, who wrote the instantly likeable opening and closing tracks. If there was ever a new music song of the summer, 2015 would belong to Sigfúsdóttir's Clockworking. Another beautiful recording from Sono Luminus, too.

On the darker end of the spectrum, we have The Soul is the Arena, three stunning works by Mario Diaz de Leon, including Luciform for flute and electronics performed by the great Claire Chase and the title track for bass clarinet and electronics, brilliantly played by Joshua Rubin. Both those works were previously released, however, the former on Chase's Density and the latter on Rubin's There Never Is No Light. So the only new work is the brooding and suspenseful Portals Before Dawn, played here by the International Contemporary Ensemble. It is a gorgeous and sophisticated work, signifying new levels of dynamic flexibility on the part of Diaz de Leon, so get to it whether or not you've already heard those other pieces. 

Speaking of dark, it gets none more black than Jóhann Jóhannsson's soundtrack to the fatalistic thriller Sicario. This is literally the sound of dread and it has to be heard to be believed. For such a small country, Iceland sure knows how to crank out great composers. Hint: it probably starts in the schools.

If you're feeling tense after Sicario, get some rest with Max Richter's Sleep, eight hours of music precision-tooled to lull you to sleep and keep you there. However, I've listened to the shorter version, From Sleep, and you might want to stay awake. It's quite beautiful, Eno ambiance crossed with hushed minimalism. 

When violinist Sarah Plum couldn't find a piece to pair with Sidney Corbett's beautiful, exploratory Yael from 2011 she simply commissioned another violin concerto by Christopher Adler and released them under the name Music For A New Century. There's a lot of variety of mood between Corbett's Yael and Adler's spiky and mysterious Violin Concerto, and Plum's committed and engaging playing makes a more than convincing case for both pieces.

Time Travelers

There were three excellent collections that compiled music across centuries, some of it newly composed for the occasion. Viola virtuoso Melia Watras assembled Ispirare around the music of George Rochberg and Luciano Berio, putting them in dialog with more recent work by Atar Arad and Shulamit Ran. The Rochberg was a bit stodgy but her performances of the Berio and Ran works were revelatory - get to them so they can get to you.

Orli Shaham explored the songlike piano music of Brahms through some of the music (Schubert, Schumann, Chopin) that he was listening to and newly-commissioned works influenced by him. Shaham's stylish and assured playing wove a very satisfying tapestry on Brahms Inspired and it's a great entrée into his keyboard music 

If there is a choir around that's better than the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart conducted by Marcus Creed, I will personally sing hallelujah in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Their album Italia was an ear-opening traversal through about 100 years of Italian choral music, including works by Verdi, Pizzetti, Scelsi, Nono and Petrassi. Their recording of Scelsi's TKRDG is likely definitive, hopefully bringing this extraordinary music to a wider audience. 

Old Music, New Recordings

Marcus Creed also shone leading Denmark's DR VokalEnsemblet on L'amour et la foi, a stunning collection of Messiaen's choral music. The perfect introduction to this corner of the master's music.

Also on the choral tip is Salvatore Mundi: The Purcell Legacy, a dreamy compilation of English church music composed by Purcell's and in his wake (by Blow, Boyce, Jackson, Handel, etc.) and performed with utmost naturalism by St. Salvator's Chapel Choir with the expert assistance of the Fitzwilliam Quartet. 

I have found, more often than not, that a composer's recording is not the definitive one. This is proved once again by Sir Simon Rattle's new live recording of Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto For Piano And Orchestra with the Berliner Philharmoniker. While the soloist, Krystian Zimerman, is the same as Lutoslawski's own performance from the eighties, this is an altogether more crisp and coherent version of a landmark work of 20th Century modernism. Essential.

Returning from the improvisatory adventures of Silfra, and the ambition of commissioning 27 new pieces, Hilary Hahn came home to Mozart in a new recording of his Violin Concerto No. 5Paavo Järvi and The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen are the perfect partners in this lyrical and unsentimental performance. It wasn't a warhorse when Mozart wrote it, after all, so there's no reason to play it like one. Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps was born about 30 years after Mozart died and is in no way his equal. Hahn takes his stormy Violin Concerto No. 4 at face value, playing it as well as it can be played, but it is filler nonetheless.

Speaking of a return, soprano Renee Fleming has been in the "crossover classical" trenches for a while now so it's nice to see her tackle something meatier: Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, performed here with the Emerson Quartet. The Emerson is really the star in the Berg, as Fleming only appears in an alternate version of the last of six movements. But what a glorious sound they make together! Fleming's lush voice blends perfectly with the strings, fitting Berg's conception of a mini-opera to a T. Fortunately, we get more of this divine combination in a set of five songs by Egon Wellesz, a Berg contemporary who is much less well known. His settings of Sonnets From The Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning are intimate and romantic while still feeling modern. I will be investigating his work further based on this. From the well-designed cover featuring a Klimt painting to the starry participants, this is a release that acknowledges no twilight of the record industry - and why should it?

New Music, Old Recording

Kudos to Wergo for reissuing the out of print Nonesuch recording of Morton Subotnick's The Wild Beasts (1978). This work is wild indeed, with Subotnick exploring the more comical side of the trombone alongside his signature electronics. Also included is After The Butterfly (1979), with Mario Guarneri as the adventurous trumpet soloist playing Subotnick's witty score with aplomb. If there is a butterfly being described it is a rather bumptious and quirky creature. As the cover says, these are "Landmark Recordings" and it is good to have them readily available again.

Sample the works mentioned with this handy playlist - then follow through with the complete recordings of anything that catches your ear.



You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Best Of 15: Hip Hop


Kendrick Lamar bestrode the world of hip hop - and music in general - like a colossus in 2015. But there was much else that excited in the world of beats and rhymes, whether on full albums or just EP's and singles.

Pusha T can elevate even minor tracks with 16 bar features, which is mostly what we got from him this year. Until this month, when he dropped King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. Supposedly made up of the songs that didn't quite fit on his next album (King Push, due in 2016), this has some incredibly strong stuff among its 10 tracks. Crutches, Crosses, Caskets, Untouchable, Keep Dealing - these are among the best songs he's released since Clipse sunsetted. Wild beats, words bitten off like beef jerky, and enough attitude to flatten Manhattan - at it's best Darkest Before The Dawn is all you could want from Pusha. Avoid the acronym songs, however. M.F.T.R. has way too much of The-Dream, with one of the least hooky hooks ever, and M.P.A., with Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, has to be one of the most depressing posse cuts I've heard.

But on Sunshine, the closing track, he gives us something special: an impassioned look at the post-Freddie Gray landscape of racial perceptions and relations between African Americans and those "sworn to protect and serve." That there may be even better material to come is a tantalizing prospect indeed. As Pusha says in Keep Dealing: "How I blew my first million/Luckily was something in the ceiling/Keep dealing."

London's own Kate Tempest stayed in the game with Bad Place For A Good Time. A moody masterpiece, it was also one highlight of her smoking set at Mercury Lounge back in March.

It was sad that Chance The Rapper let another year pass without following up 2013's Acid Rap. But it was difficult to stay down when he was making such joyful music with his friends Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment on Surf. Opening song Miracle was a dose of pure wonder, Slip Slip Slide featured Busta Rhymes sounding reinvigorated among its joyful horns and young guns, and Sunday Candy instantly became the greatest hip hop song about grandmas. Those are just a few of the highlights from a consistently sweet album. Chance also finished up the year strong with the single Angels, letting us keep hope alive for next year.

I'm always happy when Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo comes up on shuffle, but he's been quiet since it came out in early 2014. He recently released one song, Nelly, that finds him in top form - hopefully prepping us for more in 2016.

I don't know if we needed a whole album of Fetty Wap's rap, but Trap Queen will long define the sound of 2015. Love that video, too.

A$AP Rocky turned out to be a lot more interesting on AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP than hinted at by his earlier work. Too long by about 20 minutes, but full of songs that zig and zag into realms both soulful and spacy, the album's pinnacle is L$D, which also had a brilliant video inspired by French bad boy auteur Gaspar Noe. This is new territory for NYC hip hop.

Speaking of new territory, California's Vince Staples ambitiously wanted his debut Summertime '06 to be a rap Dark Side Of The Moon. Not quite - but he shows a lot of promise, with more personality than many young M.C.'s.

Even though its best song was two years old, Raekwon's Fly International Luxury Art was a credible attempt at updating his sound, mixing his Wu Tang grit with everyone from his Wu Tang comrade Ghostface Killah with newer voices like A$AP Rocky, French Montana and 2Chainz. Unlike Ghostface, however, who found new life by collaborating with BADBADNOTGOOD, Rae may be holding himself back by trying to keep up with the mainstream.

Your Old Droog has no concerns about the mainstream, however, unless rapping about 90's alternative rock is a lot more popular than I think it is. The New Yorker released an album's worth of material over two EP's, Kinison and The Nicest. "I don't make music for mass consumption," he raps over a classy beat by EL RTNC on We Don't Know You. Maybe so - but that doesn't mean more people shouldn't listen.

"Call me the 27th character," Jonwayne raps on the opening cut to Jonwayne Is Retired, the six-song follow-up to 2013's Rap Album One. He's definitely a character and I'm glad he's not really retired as he is a singular presence, a wordsmith and beatmaker of much originality. If you want to try your hand at the words, he also released Here You Go, a two-part collection of spectacular beats. If he's giving this stuff away, what is he saving for his next album?

Killer Mike used to be underground, now he's interviewing presidential candidates. Between politics and touring constantly, it's no wonder we only got two new songs this year from Run The Jewels, his collaboration with El-P. Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite) is a bit of a throw-away but the menacing Bust No Moves was no outtake, with Killer in especially fine form. There was a also a cat-themed remix album but I'm allergic to cats.

I guess we'll now have to wait until 2016 for Kanye West's Swish (or whatever he's calling it now) to be released. Fortunately, he dropped a few songs to spice up this year. The stomping All Day could have fit on the brilliant Yeezus, although it's a little less edgy and you can actually dance to it. The real pop moves, however, came with FourFiveSeconds, which had Paul McCartney strumming behind 'Ye and Rihanna, who actually sounds good in this raw setting. Strange bedfellows, maybe, but no one's hogging the sheets. Macca also plays a sweet keyboard behind the tender Only One and even with the liberal and creative use of autotune, Kanye is singing better than ever. Maybe all that time with Justin Vernon is paying off. Whatever direction the next album goes, count me in.

Another return I hope we can look forward to in 2016 is Missy Elliot, who's last album was 10 years ago. Her career was slowed by a number of things, including a bout with Grave's disease, a kind of hyperthyroidism, which was successfully treated. Her Super Bowl appearance in February showed she hadn't lost a step and reintroduced her to the world. Earlier this month she put out WTF (Where They From?), which was classic Missy from start to finish, as was the hilarious video. Pharrell's on the track, too, and brings his A game, but there's no question that Missy is the star. Hip hop can use more of her high-spirited, left-field stuff so I'm pulling for a big 2016 for Missy!

Here's a playlist to get you started.




You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Best Of 15: Reggae


Roots & Branches

Often my coverage of reggae is limited to reissues. This year, there were also several new releases that were in heavy rotation.

Guyana-born singer Jahdan Blakkamoore came to my attention via DJ Rupture's Dutty Artz label several years ago, his smooth attack an immediate attraction on mixtapes, Major Lazer songs, and his own album, the excellent Buzzrock Warrior. Now, five years later, he's back with Order Of Distinction, a lushly produced and varied collection. From the dancehall fun of Ting Tun Up to the romance of Sweetest Thing or the mournful strength of Faith, Blakkamoore covers a lot of bases with command, confidence, and a warmth that more than makes up for the sometimes simplistic lyrics.

The Expanders have been working on their strictly roots sounds on the west coast for most of the decade. It all pays off on Hustling Culture, which finds their three-part harmonies polished, their rhythms relaxed and flexible, and their songwriting honed to a fine point. They've come a long way and this delightful album, which feels both familiar and fresh, goes down easy.

London's Prince Fatty is another roots specialist, especially on the dub side, and has been the perfect production foil for the brilliant Hollie Cook in the last few years. The Clone Theory finds him teaming up with Mad Professor for an in-depth exploration of analogue dub techniques. While there's nothing that will make Lee Perry quake in his shoes, the Prince and the Professor have a few tricks up their sleeves. Good fun.

Reggae Angels, from the west coast like The Expanders, have an extremely smooth take on classic reggae. Although they've been at it for over 20 years,  The Way is my first encounter with them. There's an optimism and positivity to the lyrics that is almost over the top, like listening to a self-help book ("If you work as a janitor, do it in an excellent way..."), but when you have bass, drums, etc. provided by Sly & Robbie & The Taxi Gang it almost doesn't matter what you're singing about.

Lovers Rock, Reality, Reissues
 


My favorite single-artist reggae reissue this year was Linval Thompson's Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks from 1976. His sweet voice can deliver both lovers rock and message songs and with Bunny Lee producing and King Tubby mixing there's no way he could lose - and he doesn't. 

Speaking of Bunny Lee, Pressure Sounds has created a superb collection called Next Cut! with the subtitle Dub Plates, Rare Sides and Unreleased Cuts - and that's exactly what you get. Everything sounds fantastic and there's even some studio chatter to remind you that there were living human beings behind these monolithic cuts. 

Adrian Sherwood also knows how to carve a sound out of stone. Singers & Players was one project among many but probably cooked up the most satisfying reggae to come out of Sherwood's London-based On U Sound studios. Their 1981 debut, War Of Words, showcased Jamaican transplants like Bim Sherman and Prince Far-I on vocals over avant grooves provided by British post-punk luminaries. It was a mighty tasty recipe indeed and sounds especially great on this year's vinyl reissue. If you're looking for another slab from these guys, check out the War Of Version EP, part of a series of 10" Disco Plates from On U Sound.

King Jammy's Roots, Reality And Sleng Teng is a nice window into the transition from roots reggae to dancehall. At two discs it's a little padded out but still great. And while you're trying to get Under Mi Sleng Teng out of your head again, read this awesome article about how its riddim came to be.

Speaking of riddims, honorable mention goes to Original Stalag 17-18 and 19 (pictured above), which I scooped up at the Brooklyn Flea Record Fair earlier this year. It features 10 takes on Winston Riley's mighty Stalag riddim, including Tenor Saw's classic Ring The Alarm, and is thus one of the all-time great party records. The cover is, unfortunately, uncredited.

Here's a playlist to get you started:




You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past

Coming soon, Hip Hop, Classical & Composed, Singles & EP's, and Best Of The Rest.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Best Of 15: The Top 20


When I waded in with my mid-year report back in July, my musical cup runneth over enough that I picked 20 albums to celebrate. Then it became a bit of horse race to see what would stay on the list, and in what position, and what would drop off. In the final. analysis, these adjustments are not really about quality but are a reflection of what albums became the soundtrack of my life and defined 2015 for me. 

Remarkably, the six top spots remained exactly the same and six others also stayed on the list, which made it tough for later releases to horn their way in. But horn in they did, helping to create what I now present to you as The Top 20 of 2015.

1. Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda Watching Holly perform many of these songs solo at The Studio in Freehold, NJ only served to solidify my judgment that this is the album she was born to make.

2. Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name Sometimes it seems as if the world has gone mad. I prescribe more Gecko. Pursue your happiness here.

3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear  The world of music could use more people like Josh Tillman, who brings a dyspeptic flair to everything he does. This album is a masterpiece and behind the jokes is something as serious as his - and your - life.  He's also a pop culture critic of rare perspicacity, as proved by his pointed jab at Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift.

4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly  What, I'm going to speak for Kendrick Lamar? Here's the man himself, quoted by BET.com at his Terminal 5 concert earlier this year: “People have said a lot about this album. They done said ‘album of the year,’ ‘album of this generation’ and all that s**t. That’s cool. But on some real s**t, making this motherf**kers album was therapy. Not only for you, but for me… [It’s] some s**t that y’all can feel whether you insecure, vulnerable, mad, happy, angry, sad. You pop this motherf**ker's tape in, and you love and you live this s**t.” I love it and live it and I think we're going to be alright. But, Kendrick...tape?

5. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass Natalie Prass is full of surprises and Matthew E. White's sympathetic and masterful production couldn't be more perfect.

6. The Amazing - Picture You Though the elements are familiar, there's a sense of discovery that makes it all seem fresh. European rock music at its finest.

7. Killing Joke - Pylon The original lineup of this legendary band is at full throttle - 35 years after their classic debut. 

8. Phil Cook - Southland Mission Since his band Megafaun broke up, there have been a lot of folks depending on Phil Cook to make them sound great in the studio and on the road. They might find him a little harder to book now that he's made this gem of an album.

9. Wilco - Star Wars It was fun to watch the ripples from the surprise release - for free, at first - of Wilco's ninth studio album. But what lasts are the songs and the sense of six brilliant individuals playing as one.

10. Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell - Sing Into My Mouth In which Sam Beam and Band of Horses frontman Bridwell set their iPods on shuffle and sing the heck out of whatever they love. Beautifully arranged, too. And if Beam wants to do a whole album of Sade covers, sign me up.

11. Guilty Simpson - Detroit's Son Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to go deep with Guilty in a wide-ranging interview, I would've noticed him coming into his own on his best full-length yet. The spectacular beats are by Katalyst from Quakers.

12. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit It's a good thing Barnett is so approachable - otherwise her dazzling lyrics and protean talent would be overwhelming. She pushes her voice and guitar into some new places on her debut full-length and there's still the sense that she will go further in the future.

13. Missy Mazzoli with Victoire and Glenn Kotche - Vespers For A New Dark Age At first the rapturous beauty is almost distracting. But then you realize Mazzoli is using it to hold off despair. Such is the power of art.

14. Jamie XX - In Color Unlike many who work mainly with electronic sounds in a pop context, Jamie is as deft with silence as he is with sound, giving his up-to-the minute collages a timeless elegance. For more good times, check out the remix EP of the album's doo wop to hip hop summer smash.

15. Boogarins - Manual Their debut album went platinum in their home country of Brazil, helped no doubt by their relentless live attack. The U.S. might catch up a little with their second album, which has added a soaring inevitability to their gorgeous psych-rock explorations. Don't let the name put you off - it's a type of jasmine flower that is said to smell like "pure love." This album is sweet indeed.

16. In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir Not yet 40, Thorvaldsdottir continues to astonish with her grasp of orchestration and structure. This album, spectacularly performed and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble, features the four-movement title piece, which brings to mind Eno crossed with Sibelius, and Transitions, for cello and electronics. While there is a darkness to her work, it's never hopeless. I learned from Meet The Composer that Iceland, where Thorvaldsdottir is from, is of comparatively recent volcanic origin. Maybe that's why artists like her and Björk are so unbeholden to the past. Can't get enough of Anna? Check out Clockworking by Nordic Affect, another excellent album which includes her Shades of Silence among other Scandinavian works.

17. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour Now 80, the Canadian poet can be forgiven for indulging in a little nostalgia - except every song on this patchwork collection of live performances sounds fresh from his pen. There are also two previously unreleased songs, including the wry blues of Never Gave Nobody Trouble, and two covers, one of which finds him fearlessly taking on George Jones. Quietly miraculous. 

18. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood For his second album, White dialed up his sound with more players and an even more assured set of songs. He's always going to have a modest voice but he plays well to his strengths. There was nothing modest, however, about his performance atBRIC Arts Center in March, where he led a 20-piece orchestra. He was unafraid to take command of the stage - and the audience - delivering an impassioned and warmly inclusive set that showed him at his best. More, please. 

19. BADBADNOTGOOD with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul In the last week or so Wu Tang Clan has been in the news quite a bit, in relation to the multi-million dollar sale of a very limited edition album to "pharma-bro" Martin Shkreli. My only hope is that some of this tabloid coverage will shine a little light onto Sour Soul. The Wu's Ghostface Killah chews the scenery with vigor on this collaboration with Toronto-based ensemble BADBADNOTGOOD, which provides enough crime-jazz swagger to burn. Kendrick Lamar got a lot of credit for incorporating elements of jazz into the tapestry of To Pimp A Butterfly, but nothing on that album swings like Sour Soul.

20. Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road OST No Grammy nod for this all-but overwhelming heavy metal symphony? For shame. Hopefully the Oscar voters will get the memo.

Here's the playlist - if you hear something you like, make sure to click through to the album. There's not a bad song in the bunch.



What's topping your list? Let me know where we overlap - and where we don't. Soon to come: overviews of The Best of The Rest Of 15, Classical & Composed, Reggae & Hip Hop, and Singles & EP's. Subscribe above to make sure you don't miss anything!

Monday, December 07, 2015

Best Of 15: Out Of The Past


With year's end visible on the horizon, it's time to take stock of what the last (nearly) 12 months have delivered musically. As always, new music had to contend with a fusillade of sounds from the past: reissues, compilations, live albums, and the like. One trend that shows no signs of stopping is the juggernaut of super-deluxe packages, which perhaps reached it's apotheosis in the limited-edition 18 disc version of Bob Dylan's The Cutting Edge, which contains every note the Bard of Hibbing played in the studio during 1965 and 1966. 

Dylan's Bootleg Series has established itself as quality endeavor befitting a singular talent so hopefully this is not a bloated equivalent to Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. I'll probably never know, however, as there are likely 5,000 other people that will be able to afford the $600 before I can. There's also a two disc version and a six disc version that are worth investigating depending on your level of engagement. I will say that based on what I've heard, I'm not sure The Cutting Edge is as essential as Live 1975 and Tell Tale Signs, two Bootleg Series entries that I've played to death. 

More information on the Dylan release and other classic rock super-deluxe stuff from the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and those four lads from Liverpool can be found at The Second Disc, the definitive blog about reissues. Tell them AnEarful sent you.


Moving on...

Dreams of England As I drifted home from an extraordinary night of hearing The Clientele in a special appearance at the Bell House last year, it occurred to me that the band's remarkable career called out for a compilation album of some sort. So, prayers answered, as this year saw the release of Alone And Unreal: The Best of the Clientele, which contains a concise chronological overview of their career, right up to On A Summer Trail, the one-off single they released last year. It's a nearly perfect introduction, showing much of their range. But the fact is they never released a bad song so if you like what you hear follow through on their albums. A nice bonus is the download of The Sound Of Young Basingstoke, a series of proto-Clientele songs by an earlier version of the group. It's a wonderfully hazy set, the germ of the idea put forth on their mature records. 

The Clientele may be unsung but Michael Head & The Strands were very nearly unheard. I was vaguely aware of them in 1998 when their one and only album came out. But how to hear it? It was gone before I had a chance. Now, The Magical World Of The Strands has been reissued and is magically available on all services, leaving me envious of all who have been enjoying it all these years. The Magical World... Is a semi-pastoral Brit-folk song cycle with a touch of Forever Changes psychedelia and Nick Drake melancholia. In short, a classic - welcome back for the very first time. 

California X-Ray Speaking of Forever Changes, there's another Love reissue from High Moon Records, the same people who lovingly resurrected Black Beauty. Unlike that previously unreleased album, however, Reel To Real, was put out by RSO and was meant to be a bid for pop success in 1974. It's Arthur Lee and Love's funkiest album, with horns, clavinet, backup singers, the whole bit. But Lee was always on the real (not the reel) so it can't help but be an x-ray of all of his frustrations and disappointments. For example, there's an almost verbatim cover of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful (For What You've Got) that was apparently a spontaneous moment in the studio. It's convincing enough and shows off Lee's versatility, but also seems somewhat pointless. There's no way his soundalike was going to muscle DeVaughn off the charts. There's also a re-recording of Singing Cowboy that's pretty good but lacks the fire of the original on Four Sail. He insisted on including an irritating gunshot sound effect on You Said You Would that Makes me never want to hear it again. 

But those are just the few low points and oddities. The first half of the record is very strong. Time Is Like A River opens the album in an expansive and soulful way with distinctive horns arranged by Lee, a bit like an uptempo Hi Records number by O.V. Wright. The groove continues from there, with a touch of gospel on Stop The Music and hard funk on Who Are You? And keep listening - while the path to the bonus cuts may be rocky, there are four outtakes that are stronger than You Said You Would and the DeVaughn cover. In the end, it seems that Lee could still put it down but could have used a bit more self-belief. 

Live Legends It's a crazy world where a burning live album by Bob Marley comes out and barely anyone notices. The title, Easy Skanking In Boston 78, probably didn't help. It's actually not a relaxed album at all, with The Wailers tighter than a bank vault and Bob leaning in with revolutionary fervor. You feel satisfied with Live! and Babylon By Bus? Guess again. 

At least Live At The Fillmore East, featuring two ridiculously energetic Sly & The Family Stone concerts from 1968, got more notice. It's a more than fitting way to celebrate Sly winning back $5 million in royalties earlier this year or to mourn the recent passing of Cynthia Robinson, the exuberant trumpet-blowing heart of the band. It will also get the party started - and finish it, too.

As I tried to process the seismic ripples of the death of Dieter Moebius earlier this year I was pleasantly surprised to come across the reissue of Cluster's USA Live. Recorded on tour in 1996 (how did I miss that?), this is a series of involving and atmospheric improvisations each named for where it was recorded. While I wouldn't mind some of the playfulness of landmark works like Rastakraut Pasta and Grosses Wasser, there is an enjoyable dissonance to hearing sleek electronic music named after Eugene, Oregon. If you're unfamiliar with these Krautrock avatars you may want to start with those earlier albums or the absolutely brilliant Cluster & Eno.


Folk-ish Any new entry in Light In The Attic's Michael Chapman series is to be celebrated. Window, his third album, may be the slightest of his first four with one too many throw-away sing-alongs and wayward jams. But his wry voice, bruised-but-unbowed attitude, and sweet picking more than carry the day. The story goes that he meant to re-record the guitar parts after some time on the road, but it's hard to imagine them getting better. I'm not a Richard Thompson fan (sorry) but anybody who is, or who loves other British folk, should catch up with Chapman.


While Sam Beam has moved far beyond the hushed bedroom recordings of early Iron & Wine, it's still a template that hasn't been exhausted. Archives Volume 1 features more home-recordings from the same time that he made The Creek Drank The Cradle, his debut. These songs are even more hushed than those, creating a singular mood. Perhaps a bit too singular, as that mood doesn't vary much over 16 songs, but it's still a must for anyone who has taken comfort from Beam's musical journey.


Electric Eclectic Eccentrics John Foxx was quick to jump on the electronic rock possibilities posited by David Bowie's Berlin albums, releasing the near-classic Metamatic in 1980. 20th Century:The Noise covers his career from 1980-1998, mainly through the prism of rare and unreleased tracks. He's still going, so this is good way to get up to speed.


Adrian Sherwood is one of the great English producers, especially known for his devastating way with dub. Sherwood At The Controls: 1979-1984 compiles his era-defining post punk tracks like Hungry So Angry by Medium Medium or Man Next Door by The Slits, which means it's essential.


The Whole World Dances Some of the funkiest reissues in 2015 had a touch of what used to be called the "exotic." Take Rim Arrives/International Funk by Rim Kwaku Obeng, for example. Obeng was a successful Ghanian percussionist when he was invited to the U.S. by Quincy Jones. A series of reversals led to him being stranded in California, which eventually turned into an opportunity to record his debut, and most of it is Afro-disco gold. If you think Soul Makossa has been a bit overplayed, this is still guaranteed fresh. Then there's 1973-1980 by Amara Touré, a senegalese keyboard player who recorded very infrequently during those years. Analog Africa has done us all a favor by compiling these compelling tracks, especially the first seven, which were recorded with Ensemble Black & White. The songs from 1980, backed by L'Orchestre Massako, are a bit slick for my taste but decide for yourself. 


Like many African musicians, Touré took inspiration from the sounds of Cuba, sounds which became a global sensation with the release of Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. After a live album and many solo albums by Buena Vista stars, we may have finally reached the end of the line with Lost & Found, a collection of live takes and unreleased studio recordings that has more than enough charm to justify its existence. 


For a more indigenous American invitation to the dance, look no further than Disco 2: A Further Fine Selection of Independent Disco, Modern Soul and Boogie 1976-80, another essential compilation from Soul Jazz. Trust me, you will get on the floor if this is spinning. 

A Last Love Supreme When I bought John Coltrane's A Love Supreme for $3.99 on CD years ago, at first I felt triumphant. Then I felt like the cheap nice-price packaging somehow did not do justice to a work that was so much a part of the sax giant's spiritual journey. Now we have A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a three CD set with extensive notes, alternate takes, and a live performance originally released in 2002. While a few of the extras are somewhat negligible this nicely done set will give A Love Supreme pride of place in your collection, which is exactly how it should be.

Have a listen to the playlist and keep me in the loop on any music from the past that gave you a blast!



There were also several killer reggae reissues this year, but I'll cover those in an upcoming Reggae & Hip Hop edition of the Best Of 15. 


Coming next: Best Of 15: The Top 20.