Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Of 12: Part Two

Is there an opposite of "ado"? Here goes...

1. The Walkmen - Heaven I've been along for the ride with Hamilton Leithauser & Co. since the first album and it has been a joy to hear them grow. Each album has expanded on their sound and explored further reaches within it. Even in the context of their progression, Heaven is a bold and startling leap forward. Perhaps touring with Fleet Foxes (and working with their producer, Phil Ek) gave Leithauser the confidence to wipe away the reverb and just sing out. His crystal clear tenor perfectly embodies songs that, for all their individuality, touch the elemental core of why we sing in the first place, and the band plays with a sizzling passion. There's something elemental about Heaven that looks back to bedrock artists like Buddy Holly - and even further back, to the earliest troubadours. The Walkmen connect with the lifeblood of music and directly to my heart.

2. Breton - Other People's Problems These brilliant 21st century art-rockers have given their all this year, touring extensively, releasing this dark (but never despairing) and often funky album, the terrific Blanket Rule EP, and ending the year with a killer single, Population Density. Can't say I'm sure why they remain cult-bound in this country, but it is certainly not because I've slacked on spreading the word. Get the memo.

3. Father John Misty - Fear Fun It was a great moment when the first video from this transcendent album dropped into my iTunes. All those Dum Dum Girls tracks Sub Pop had been foisting on me were quickly forgotten when I got a taste of J.Tillman's new persona. Bitingly witty and with the best singing and songwriting of his career, the new name seems to have begotten almost an entirely new artist out of whole cloth. The hip-shaking, slightly pissed off Misty also deserves to be called Performer Of The Year - catch him if you can. And I was having so much fun singing along to I'm Writing A Novel that I barely worried who was going to be the new sticks man for my beloved Fleet Foxes.

4. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange Deep and delightful, dirty and sublime, this album singlehandedly redefined modern R&B. It's also a unifying force, appearing on more year-end lists than any other album as far as I can tell. Sometimes you just can't argue with ubiquity. One caveat: the first time I listened to the hamhanded Super Rich Kids was also the last.

5. Jeremy Denk - Ligeti/Beethoven Programming concerts and albums to cause communication across the centuries is fairly common practice these days. Denk just follows through on the concept in more dazzling fashion than most. Somehow he gets Ligeti's ultra-knotty Etudes to breathe, and their twists, turns and spikes prepare your ears to re-experience Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 with an alertness to every detail. When the Sonata ends and we are returned to Ligeti's world, it seems perfectly natural for both composers to occupy the same universe. It's a journey you'll want to repeat.

6. Domenico - Ciné Privé Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has his hands in so many things that it should be no surprise that he was my introduction to this bewitching Brazilian musician. Spare yet immersive grooves limn relaxed vocals that speak to me regardless of any language barrier. Members of Wilco guest on this fantastic album, which was recorded some years ago but is just now getting a U.S. release featuring Atwood-Ferguson's string-bedecked remix of Receita.

7. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music This is the album us die-hard Killer Mike fans have been waiting for since his OutKast-assisted debut back in 2003. Bona fide block rocking beats from Brooklyn's own El-P provide the perfect foundation for Mike's raps, which range from heartfelt to enraged. His demolition of Ronald Reagan's legacy is so complete that when he points out that the ex-President's name is (numerologically speaking) the number of the beast, you just nod your head. Hopefully all the attention R.A.P. Music is getting will shine a light on PL3DGE, his last album, which was nearly as good.

8. Bob Dylan - Tempest I literally feel pity for those whose inability to tolerate Dylan's current voice(s) is preventing them from hearing the mastery at work on this bloody-minded album. As the man himself puts it in Narrow Way: "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." Don't just take Bob's legendary staus for granted, open your mind and ears and experience it for yourself as it's happening.

9. The Darcys - Aja In which the Toronto band remakes Steely Dan's multi-platinum masterpiece in their own image. It's an act of homage that dismantles the object of The Darcys affections, exposing the darkness at its core. When I asked lead singer Jason Couse if Becker and Fagen had heard their baby's new incarnation, he was only able to report that a Dropbox had been accessed by Becker's assistant. Hopefully they "got the news" by now. You can get it for free.

10. Talea Ensemble - Fausto Romitelli: Anamorphosis In concert after concert around the world, this adventurous and virtuosic group is bringing the composed music of our times to full-blooded life. Their debut album features world premieres of five pieces by Romitelli, who died at 41 in 2004, all played to perfection. On February 4th, 2013, Talea will be paying tribute to patron Ralph Kaminsky, alongside other new music luminaries including Alarm Will Sound and the JACK Quartet, at Merkin Concert Hall. I wouldn't miss it!

Still to come: Best Of The Rest and Out Of The Past (reissues and other older sounds)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best of 12: Part One

The amount of great music I've heard this year, from new discoveries to long-anticipated releases, was high enough that I have decided to expand to a Top 20. I gotta say that anyone who is nostalgic for the music of a prior era, and/or bemoaning a dearth of good listening today, should perhaps inspect their surroundings for the mud they are stuck in.

Without further ado, here's 11-20.

11. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch Walker's trajectory from pop idol (mainly in the U.K.) to explorer of art rock extremes was perfectly described in the documentary 30 Century Man, which went a long way toward helping me make the leap to where he had landed on The Drift, his last album. The new one is no less radical but seems more assured and employs a greater dynamic range sonically and lyrically. While the lyrics mix dreadful episodes from human history with more personal tribulations, they are often bitterly hilarious: "If shit were music/You'd be a brass band." Bish Bosch is Walker's most convincing foray into the realm of art song and it would be a wonderful thing if a song or two made it into the performance repertoire of one of our more adventurous new music ensembles. That would make it an easier wait if it takes him another six years to make his next album.

12. Hospitality - Hospitality The charm of Amber Papino and co.'s expertly produced pop has not worn off, in fact more layers of guitars and vintage synths have been revealed. Puts a spring in my step every time.

13. Quakers - Quakers In the year Kanye finally released his G.O.O.D. Music collection, who would suspect it would get stomped by a trio of British music geeks (led by Portishead's Geoff Barrow) and a huge posse of mostly unknown rappers. The beats are as omnivorous as the rhymes, with sounds and subjects spanning a deliriously wide range. The breakout star may be Jonwayne, who's set to drop his debut on Stones Throw in 2013.

14. Patrick Watson - Adventures In Your Own Backyard At it's best, Watson's latest has a soaring epic sweep that channels Ennio Morricone, yet maintains his trademark intimacy. When I saw him at Bowery Ballroom earlier this year, I'm sure everyone in the room felt he was singing just for them. If the album were a four act play, however, it could be said to suffer from some third act longueurs, which is why it's not in the upper ten for this year.

15. Baroness - Yellow & Green Conceived as a double album to focus attention on their heavier and lighter sides, Yellow & Green is ultimately a unified collection of their most emotionally connected, compositionally sophisticated music. More here.

16. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes Electronic music has never had more personality than when Steven "Flying Lotus" Ellison is at work. Using a lush palette of tones and textures (including the guest vocals of Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke) he provides a soundtrack that makes even a trip to Target an adventure.

17. Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits Just when I was despairing of new sounds from Britt Daniel, his collaboration (don't call it a supergroup) with Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs and Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks exploded on the scene. Echoes of Spoon's stripped down approach are heard, along with the dynamic tension and release of bands like Wire and the electro-infused sound of early Simple Minds. Producer Nick Launay, who cut his teeth on albums like the latter's Empires And Dance, and Alex Fischel on keyboards ably abet the creation of a great collection of passionate pop. Their committed live set on Sound Opinions gives hope that this is not just a one-off.

18. Matthew E. White - Big Inner This lavishly orchestrated series of songs was one of the surprises of the year. White's synthesis of varying streams of Americana is fascinating and stays mysterious through many listens. Long in the background as an arranger and composer, White just needs a little more vocal confidence to own the spotlight. Based on the concert I saw, that's already in progress. After all, he's only a "Big Inner." His playlists on Spotify make me think we're somehow related. Find them under "amattwhitejoint" - also his Twitter handle.

19. Fenster - Bones Like its title suggests, this is a somewhat skeletal affair, sonically speaking. But it's also emotionally rich and the songs are constructed out of sturdy stuff.

20. Hilary Hahn & Hauschka - Silfra Improvisational composing may not have come quickly to a classically trained musician like Hahn, but you would never know it from this hand-in-glove collaboration with Hauschka, the prepared-piano wizard. Goes down easy, but covers a lot of ground.

Coming up: 1-10, Best Of The Rest, and Out Of The Past (reissues and other older sounds).

Monday, December 17, 2012

Led Zep Vic Lap

Yes, I was one of those people who broke the Internet trying to get a ticket for Led Zeppelin's performance at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute back in 2007. Like most of the 20 million in the lottery, I did not get lucky. I was OK with that result because it would have been a logistical nightmare to get there, especially considering they had to reschedule the date due to Jimmy Page's injuring his hand.

Let's face it though - I am a huge fan of the band and would have done whatever it took to get there. At the time, the reports were that the concert was good, maybe even great. In the ensuing months (that quickly turned to years) I heard bootlegs of both the performance and the production rehearsal and it all sounded more than respectable. It was certainly a far cry from the slightly farcical Live Aid set and the lackluster Atlantic Records anniversary gig.

All that said, I was slightly unprepared for just how absurdly great Celebration Day, the DVD/CD package that was recently released, is. Eighteen months of editing have created a concert film like none other, surprisingly intimate without slighting the power and grandeur that is a given where Led Zeppelin is concerned. The camera always seems to be exactly where you want it to be, whether observing John Paul Jones's deft footwork on the organ pedals or Jimmy Page's satisfied grin after an intense solo. I look forward to watching it again.

The audio is an incredibly satisfying listening experience, with blistering energy and much nuance. Right from the crushing chords that open Good Times Bad Times, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jason Bonham (sitting in for his late, great father) play with a fire and a fury that belies their ages - and the age of the music. The band does a great job of stripping away some of the more indulgent aspects of their 70's concerts and letting the music speak for itself. Page sprays glorious barrages of smeared notes and attacks his classic riffs with a vengeance. Jones is ever nimble on the bass and his keyboard work is rich and assured. Plant's voice is a lot lower than during his prime but he could still unleash those spine-tingling howls. Jason Bonham, who had perhaps the hardest job that night, succeeds in honoring his father's titanic groove and applying his own personality, with a sizzling and sometimes loose drive that seems to keep Page and Jones on their toes.

While everyone will have their opinion on what songs they should have played (Ten Years Gone would have made me very happy), the care with which they put together the set list is apparent. In any case, the fact than they included the first-ever live performance of For Your Life, along with a couple of other stage rarities, puts much second guessing to rest.

If this is indeed the final statement of Led Zeppelin as a contemporary performing entity, it is a worthy and well/deserved victory lap. As a live album plus concert film it is likely without equal in the annals of rock. Any Zep fan will consume it eagerly and skeptics may be lured into a change of heart. Five years was worth the wait and Celebration Day could not have a more apt title - it is indeed something to celebrate, right down to the artwork, which is hip enough that my 13 year-old daughter had to have the t-shirt. Leave it to Zeppelin to remain relevant, even when releasing a five year old concert of 30 year old songs.

A final note about Jimmy Page. I have often said that he is my second favorite guitarist and he does nothing here that would cause me to change my opinion. "I'm not a guitarist as far as a technician goes. I deal in emotion," Page has said, and I think that's what I respond to. While listening to Celebration Day for the second or third time, it dawned on me that, though his contemporary output may be paltry, he is the greatest living guitar player. I, for one, will treasure every note he decides to reveal to us.