Monday, December 27, 2010

Ten Favorite Albums of 2010

With but a few days left in the year, I have finally finished my list. Having more albums to choose from than any other year from the past, this was no easy task to narrow it down to ten. It should suffice to say this was a great year in the world of music. The honorable mention is probably longer than the list itself so I've decided to list only the following. Anyway, here goes nothing...

10. The Wild Hunt by the Tallest Man on Earth

Because Bob Dylan is so unique in his own right, being seen as a watered down version of the great R.A. Zimmerman is the plight of hundreds of singer-songwriters. But despite garnering comparisons to early Dylan from just about anyone who has heard any of Kristian Matsson’s songs, the Swede is no sound-alike. Though the two voices have a similar grain, the feeling in Matsson’s voice is of a different flavor of wisdom. As opposed to Dylan's cagey hillside blues, Matsson's songs sound as if he’s singing to past lovers from a mountain top. Though he’ll never be as important as Bobby D. (not sure if any songwriter ever will), Matsson holds his own as a master craftsman with a bright future.

9. Death Is Silent by Kno

This was a great year for dark hip hop concept albums (obligatory Kanye West reference? Check) and CunninLynguists maestro Kno added another chapter to his impressive body of work. Stepping out on his own for the first time, albeit with a healthy handful of guests, gifted producer/MC Kno took a profound look at all things related to death in these thirteen cuts. It’s a rare thing when a rap album presents a philosophically wise, totally cohesive album but even rarer when it does it with top-notch production and rhyming as clever as can be. Somewhere along the path from love to death to reflection to enlightenment, Death Is Silent proves itself worthy of the emotional demand it puts on the listener.

8. Englishman by Englishman

Englishman is a trio from Lexington, Kentucky that almost no one has heard of. I only found about this album after being asked to promote a free MP3 on SSG. But once I started listening to the album, I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried. Sounding like a combination of established troubadors Colin Meloy and John Darnielle, Andrew English is a gifted songwriter in his own right, with words that match his melodies in their remarkable depth. The album is clearly a home recording with a thin layer of white noise on the top, but still sounds carefully put together and totally void of filler. Rookie of the year.

7. Epic by Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten. Say it ten times. It’s a name to remember. Just listen to Epic. It’s only seven tracks and the album title is a bit on the bold side, but as soon as Van Etten starts singing, one can’t help but hang on to every word she says. The allure of her voice is as mysterious as it is intriguing as she brings these brutally honest songs about love, loss and apathy to life. The songs vary between huge dream pop production, folksy tenderness and droning minimalism but Van Etten’s surreal narration unifies it all into an outstanding story.

6. Beachcomber’s Windowsill by Stornoway

As should be clear by my album review, concert preview and concert review, Stornoway is one of the best new bands of the 2010 class. Like Belle and Sebastian, their songs are pleasant and singable but after a few listens, they grip you and don’t let go. Beachcomber’s Windowsill is eleven tracks but goes by in a blink, so to speak. Each one is jam-packed with infectious hooks and melodies, adding up to a beautiful arc made even more impressive by a band recording its first album.

5. Big Echo by The Morning Benders

All year, I kept waiting to grow tired of the Morning Benders but it didn’t happen. In fact, there wasn’t a single song on this album that faded in any way from that glorious first listen in March. Frontman Christopher Chu is a California wunderkind backed by a stellar band and handled by an adept co-producer in Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Though heavy on reverb as the title may suggest, this album is coated in the innocent youthful shimmer that radiates from the best, most genuine rock and roll.

4. Field Music (Measure) by Field Music

For those of us hoping that a band would fill the void left by great sophisti-pop bands like Steely Dan and XTC, we need look no further than Field Music. On Measure, British brothers Peter and David Brewis are virtuosos of several instruments but most of all, the recording studio. Every guitar riff, vocal harmony and drum hit is so perfectly placed on this huge album that it’s easy to forget that these are human beings. And while sometimes this sort of perfection feels stuffy, the Brewis brothers are more like perfectionist classical composers than autotune wielding studio wizards. They have specific things to say and they know how to get them said precisely as intended, without cheating.

3. All Delighted People by Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan, you may call this an EP, but because it’s an hour long, it’s going to have to qualify among my favorite albums of the year. Released out of nowhere this summer, Mr. Stevens released his first new songs in five years and they instantly reminded us of why the man’s name is almost holy in indie pop land. Consisting of two amazing versions of the “Sounds of Silence” inspired title song, five new doses of precious Sufjan acoustica, and the epic, tear-jerking “Djohariah” (juh-HA-ree-uh, named for Stevens’ sister) the EP is ultimately more satisfying than the also excellent Age of Adz LP. No one seems to agree with this statement but I’m sticking with it.

2. Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom

When Joanna Newsom releases two hours of original music, it’s a good year for original music. After a debut album of bizarrely gorgeous elf-like sing-alongs and a sophomore effort of mammoth scope, the third record is a perfect combination of the two. With a voice sounding closer to that of a woman’s than the small child of her earlier work, Newsom proves yet again that there probably are harps in heaven. Each of the eighteen songs has a unique personality ranging from simple melodies of the wilderness like “On a Bad Day” to the jaw-dropping musical roller coasters like “Baby Birch.” Let’s face it; Joanna Newsom is one of the few prodigies in pop music today.

1. Teen Dream by Beach House

Released in January, Teen Dream stood as the album to beat all year long. Simply put, the Baltimore duo managed to capture a sort of magic in their third LP. The dreamy keyboard arrangements are a wonder to behold but what really makes this album special is the singing of Victoria Legrand. Her voice takes the listener on a sweeping journey within every song, making the album and exhausting but satisfying odyssey through a new musical terrain, where multi-colored zebras run free.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

1975

Gold Medal: Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan

It's really hard for me to decide my favorite Bob Dylan album but if my life depended on making a choice, it would probably be this one. I wrote a review this album a long time ago and I still believe what I wrote about this being a how-to-guide for songwriting. Inspired by a painful divorce, the line that sums this one up is on "You're a Big Girl Now" where Bob sings about a "corkscrew to his heart." Very few have been able to make such beautiful music out of so much pain. "Shelter from the Storm" could be the best set of lyrics in the history of rock. In the top Dylan songs at the very least.

Silver Medal: Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Speaking of favorite albums by favorite artists, this is Floyd's best achievement in my mind. The two epic parts of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" sandwich three masterful songs in this Syd Barrett life-story inspired record. Pink Floyd was ahead of just about any other band in the seventies in being able to follow through with huge artistic ambitious visions. Even more impressive that they managed to do it while composing a song that basically spoke to a generation "Wish You Were Here."

Bronze Medal: A Night at the Opera by Queen

Queen has one of the most instantly recognizable sounds of any band and this album is their magnum opus. Yes, it has "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "You're My Best Friend" but those two hardly stand out in the stupendous twelve track playlist. This was the band's entrance in to the world of rock legend land and it still sounds like something that could never be reproduced. Freddy Mercury and Brian May channeled the magic of Lennon and McCartney for one album and this is it. Don't get me wrong; there are more good Queen albums. But this is the only one that hasn't any filler.

Top ten tracks:

1. "Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan
2. "Country Road" as performed by Toots and the Maytals (John Denver)
3. "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd
4. "Barstool Blues" by Neil Young
5. "Ten Years Gone" by Led Zeppelin
6. "Love of My Life" by Queen
7. "Simple Twist of Fate" by Bob Dylan
8. "Lookin' For a Love" by Neil Young
9. "Dimming of the Day/Daragai" by Richard and Linda Thompson
10. "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rhythm of the Void

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm on the verge of releasing a new album. For the first time, I'm putting it up for sale on BandCamp so you should buy it to support this poor college student. I'm also excited to premiere it on my radio show this evening on my radio show.

This is probably as close to liner notes as you'll find. Much of my beliefs of what an album is were outlined here. I wrote most of the songs this summer, though a few are older than that. I recorded on GarageBand which has its limitations but also its conveniences, namely that it's free and I can record in my own room with the equipment I have.

The sound is continuing the Beatles-y rock that I'm attached to. It's difficult to judge my own work but lyrically and musically, I think it's fairly consistent and interesting. Of course, I hear plenty of imperfections but I decided to be done when I said was done last weekend. It will never be totally satisfactory so I have to decide to draw the line when I do. And that's that. As long as I don't spend too much time comparing my music to music produced by my favorite artists, I should be fairly content.

Eight songs, just over half an hour long. I sang, played guitar, bass, drums, vibraphone, keyboards, ukulele, harmonica and slide whistle. The arrangements are somewhat varied though the song structures are fairly similar. Lyrically, I used a lot of religious imagery (no idea why) as well as ambiguous questioning stuff. I'm excited to release what I'll remember as my first actual "album." Hopefully there will be more to come!

Purpose

I don't know if you've noticed but the recurring theme of this blog for the last year or so is my own complaining/apologizing about not writing here as much as I'd like. Sure, there are tons of excuses. Namely, a) who actually cares? b) I have very little time c) there's a lack of content I'm passionate about. Writing in here has become another entry on my long to-do list.

Starting now, I'm changing things, for I don't like the current state of affairs. I have SSG to present my real music criticism work and this can stand as a laboratory. Here I shall try out new things. I keep a physical journal where I write spontaneously about whatever occurs to me or I think deserves being written about and this should be like that in the musical realm.

One piece of advice I've heard from just about every English teacher I've ever had is to write constantly. I enjoy writing and do it all different kinds of ways: journal entries, academic papers, music reviews, emails, what have you. This blog is also important in its unique function as my own personal property to be published. My stats tell me that this is getting read by some folks out there just about every day so it's worth keeping and delving into when I can.

There are many things to write about musically these days but I've found that setting aside a subject to write about later doesn't always work. Spontaneity is key. If I want to to write a manifesto on the genius of Tom Waits, I will just sit down and effing write it.

Music is on my mind all the time. If you know me at all, that's abundantly clear. But one thing I've learned recently is that working in binges can be effective. For example, tomorrow, I'm releasing my first solo album and in the recording process, there were three days where I recorded for at least six hours straight with no break. I originally planned on working an equal amount every day but that just flat out didn't work so I reverted to binging. That can be applied to this as well.

Enough theory. I write this for you, the reader. It's also for myself, to try and sort out my thoughts but in general, as with music I compose, I do it as a gift for other people, while aiming to satisfy myself with the result. I rarely am totally satisfied but it's the effort that matters. I suppose I should have some cohesive finale to this post about my own purpose for Page 43. Instead of saying what I am trying to do, I shall define what I am not trying to do: I'm not trying to change the world with innovative ideas; I'm not trying to have my own all-encompassing musical philosophy text. I only strive to express my thoughts and interest people with whatever happens to come out of my head and perhaps spur on more ideas.

Monday, November 8, 2010

2004

Gold Medal: Satanic Panic in the Attic by of Montreal

Sometimes, an album comes along that pushes all the right buttons. For me, this is that album. Clever isn’t a strong enough word to describe Kevin Barnes’ magnum opus; SPA is about the most fun one can have listening to music. Each song is loaded with hooks that fit together like a gloriously quirky jigsaw puzzle. I’ve written a more extensive review here but all in all, this album is one that is cemented among my favorite pop achievements.

Silver Medal: Funeral by Arcade Fire

Funeral is probably as close to “generation defining” as any recent album has come. Arcade Fire is one of the true hipster royalties and this is the main reason why. Powerful, thrilling and epic, Arcade Fire’s first full-length album became the blueprint for the future of indie rock and roll. Centered around the band members recently departed friends and family, Funeral came out of the ashes with a vengeance and then some. The “Neighborhood” songs, “Rebellion (Lies)”, “Crown of Love” the list of unforgettable tracks goes on. If you haven’t heard this, don’t admit it to anyone and get it on your iPod as soon as possible.

Bronze Medal: LP by Ambulance LTD

If the gold went to the ideal indie pop album and silver went to the ideal indie rock album, the bronze is a mixture of the two. LP starts out with the rockin’ instrumental “Yoga Means Union” and spends the next 52 minutes spanning between Beatle-esque melodies and edgy guitar distortion a la Built to Spill. The album is consistent from start to finish and packed with memorable tracks. It’s a shame that the group’s output never really went beyond this one diamond in the rough.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Snapshot

It’s always interesting to me when creators write a sort of explanation to their creations. Whether it’s a writer, visual artist or musician, it seems that artists commonly write a sort of treatise on their work. Since I’m working on an album at this very moment, I thought it would be enjoyable and beneficial to make one of my own. Much of these ideas have been covered in earlier blog posts but I’m ploughing ahead anyway.

First and foremost, an album is a snapshot. Just like anything, it came to be thanks to a series of events. Songs are inspired my experiences or thoughts that happened to the writer around the time of the album. The artist should act as a photographer and capture as much as he can in one shot.

This isn’t to say that an album shouldn’t represent more than a particular time for a particular person. In fact, if that was all that the audience could possibly get from an album, then it would be a failure. However, the artist shouldn’t attempt anything more though the snapshot should naturally depict more than initially meets the eye. The interpretation belongs to the audience not the creator.

Nonetheless, the artist should keep the audience in mind in writing from his/her own experiences. The ultimate goal of art is to reach others through exploration of ones own expression. It’s not about screaming “Look what I did for you!” or “I don’t care what you think of what I did.” The middle path is the one that should be taken. The art should invite the listener into the artist’s world and hopefully connect somewhere along the way.

Finally, it is important to be a unique voice in the ongoing conversation of tradition. This goes back to drawing from one’s own experiences. No two people have the exact same history so therefore artists should be as varied as people are. The artist must respect those who came before him/her without modeling him/herself after any particular figure from the past.

THIS FEELS REALLY PRETENTIOUS BUT IT’S NOT. I PROMISE.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

1974

Gold Medal: Natty Dread by Bob Marley and the Wailers

This has been my favorite reggae album since I first heard it. Released after Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh went their separate ways, this is the first album with Marley taking full creative control. Natty Dread is the perfect blending of the genre’s polar emotions: protest and chill. Underneath Marley’s incredible voice, the arrangements are top-notch, featuring incredible guitar work as well as horns and female background vocals. It’s captivating from being to end, never falling into the “all sounds the same” camp of so much reggae. Instead, the nine tracks fly by, with highlights like “No Woman, No Cry” and “So Jah Seh" representing the best Bob Marley ever recorded.

Silver Medal: No Other by Gene Clark

Better than anything the Byrds ever made, Gene Clark’s solo masterpiece is one of the most underappreciated albums in existence. After founding and later leaving the Byrds, Clark recorded a handful of country-tinged albums, culminating in this crowning achievement. What makes this album so fantastic is the perfect harnessing of energy with of every song. Each track starts out innocent and unassuming but blossoms into a gripping climax that sends shivers up the listener’s spine. Recorded impeccably with the help of Thomas Jefferson Kaye, the album is a wash of wonder. This is arguably the best country-rock has to offer.

Bronze Medal: Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s first album with a full band, Court and Spark presents Joni stepping elegantly in to the world of jazz without leaving her singer/songwriter roots. One of the finest voices of her generation, Joni Mitchell proves herself here (as always) as a master storyteller who can get more emotion across in her music than just about anyone else. This album showcases a stellar cast of session musicians, mixed together brilliantly. After meticulously writing and recording the album, Joni produced her most commercially and critically successful album yet. It’s remarkable yet somehow unsurprising that she made such an ambitious jump seem so easy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rock Criticism from the Beginning: Amusers, Bruisers And Cool-Headed Cruisers

...is the name of the book I am now reading in preparation for my culminating degree project at PLU, known as the capstone. My intention is to read the book, do further research on a specific part, write a paper, and present my findings in April or May. The book is very dense (written by three PhDs) and is about much more than history. Only fifty some pages in, I've gotten a healthy dose of Kantian taste theory as well the "field logic" of Pierre Bordieu. I'm having to deal with the paradox of scholarly study in the fairly anti-academic world of rock, but what the heck. That's nothing new to me. This book is sure to inspire new thoughts about this critical world I'm engulfed in and I'll try to explore them right here.

Things are going swimmingly at SSGMusic, thanks for asking. Here is a link to all I've done for them thus far. I plan to review my first concerts in October. Most exciting part: getting to present press passes to the bouncers and turn brawny ogres into obsequious gnomes. Okay, this may be an exaggeration but I am indeed stoked for going free to shows. SSG is also responsible tons of help with my writing skills. Specifically the brutally honest album review supervisor Justin Spicer.

This weekend should also kick off two of my favorite musical pursuits. I've been saying this for awhile but I AM going to start recording an album soon. I've plenty of songs in the tank; I just need to open GarageBand, turn on the microphone and say no to distractions. My second commencement will be for the second and final season of my radio show, "Disconnect the Dots." If you read these words, you better tune in this and/or any Saturday at 6:00. Let me know if you're going to listen and I'll give you a shout out!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

2003

Gold Medal: Hail to the Thief by Radiohead

Let's face it. If I keep up with this blog, Radiohead is going to be at the top of a whole bunch of these lists. They are so far above any other modern band and Hail to the Thief is just one more momentous achievement. The longest Radiohead album, this is a glorious combination of Kid A-esque electronica with guitar brilliance present throughout the quintet's career. It isn't the best Radiohead record but it contains some of the best songs they've ever recorded. "There There (The Bony King of Nowhere)" is just about as good as it gets. Thank God for Radiohead.

Silver Medal: Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle and Sebastian

Though clearly not trying to change the world like Radiohead, Belle and Sebastian is one of the most consistently great bands of the last 15 years. This record is filled with indie pop gems, recorded with the sort of high fidelity lacking on If Your Feeling Sinister, and nearly as phenomenal as that 1996 twee landmark. This is an album that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face without coming across as naive. "I'm a Cuckoo", "Stay Loose", "If She Wants Me" are all easily in the top ten B&S songs.

Bronze Medal: Magnolia Electric Company by Songs: Ohia

The all-American album of the decade, this record is a powerhouse. Jason Molina's project is the soundtrack to the landscape of the heartland. Eight songs that never resemble filler, Magnolia Electric Company is a blueprint for every guitar-slinging, Neil Young worshipping, rebel-rousing, prospective rock star. Guided by the visionary Molina, the band just nails everything. Every slide guitar lick, every drum fill feels so perfect. Get this gem.

Monday, August 16, 2010

1985-8

Check out my first published works here and here!

Gold Medal: Graceland by Paul Simon

Along with Bridge Over Troubled Water with Art Garfunkel, this is the legendary Paul Simon’s masterpiece. Not only that, part of the album was recorded in South Africa, introducing much of the Western world to African popular music. Graceland was hugely successful after a bit of a slump for Simon, making it the ultimate comeback album. It’s easy to see why, as these are fantastic songs with vibrant, African flavored arrangements behind them. “You Can Call Me Al” is the most famous song on the album but “Graceland” is the song Simon considers his best. The rest is just as stellar and makes for the best album ever released by someone 20 plus years into his career.

Silver Medal: Never Die Young by James Taylor

James Taylor has one of the smoothest voices there has ever been. It’s hard to describe but when he sings, one can’t help but be possessed by its…smoothness. I grew up with the music James Taylor, specifically his greatest hits and this gem of an album. I know just about every word on this record and still enjoy listening to its intricate arrangements of Steely Dan-esque jazz pop. Not a well-known album, Never Die Young is criminally underrated. The ‘80s production sound may remind some of “easy listening,” but after spending time with these songs, it becomes apparent how well crafted each and every one of them is.

Bronze Medal: TIE: Skylarking by XTC and The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths

I can’t decide which album I like more so these two albums are sharing a spot on the podium.

Skylarking is a definitive album of sophisti-pop. Despite it's catchy choruses, the music of XTC is still not immediately accessible in the way of a Michael Jackson record might be. This isn’t to say that MJ wasn’t sophisticated, but somehow XTC comes across as pop music for adults, not unlike the aforementioned Steely Dan. Skylarking is like the Beatles twenty years later, with all the production possibilities newly available. It’s a hook driven, loose concept album encompassing the long tale of a man’s romance with a woman, progressing from “The Meeting Place” to “Big Day” to “Dying” to “Sacrificial Bonfire.” With the brilliant Todd Rundgren producing, this is a high point in intelligent purely pop music.

The Smiths are one of the most important alternative bands ever. The seductive baritone of Morrissey above the guitar chorus of Johnny Marr along with the steady rhythm of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce is an instantly recognizable sound. With their magnum opus, The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths accomplished the cohesive album that will forever be a shrine to alienated youths everywhere. Songs like “Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates” for example, seem to speak a language that resonates so strongly with this demographic, singing about an existentialist trip to a graveyard. “So we go inside and we gravely read the stones/all those people, all those lives/where are they now?/with the loves and hates and passions just like mine.” The Smiths would only release four albums but their mark on music is monumental. "If a ten ton truck kills the both of us/to die by your side/well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Seattle Show Gal

As of this last weekend, I officially got the job with Seattle Show Gal. The site is growing fast and though the term blog might make you think of something small like this, SSG is getting a ton of traffic and growing every month. I'm really stoked to be a real music journalist and I've already started getting assignments. Nothing's been published yet but my bio's up and you can check that out if you'd like.

I'll probably be fairly busy with that and may not post as much here. At the very least, I'll have links to my album reviews and previews. Part of what's exciting about working there is being held to a high standard. I love doing Page 43, but let's be honest, is anyone really going to say anything if something I write is junk?

I've put the album on the back burner for awhile but I guarantee it will be done before the end of the year. I'll post my Best of 1985-8 post soon. For now though, I need to write a concert preview for SSG.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's Next?

A couple of potentially exciting things may happen in August. First off, I plan on recording my third EP over the next three weeks. I have lots of material lined up so I hope that recording goes smoothly and I have something to be proud of by the end of the summer. I'm not totally satisfied with the songs but I never am so that's no surprise. I will be posting the EP as well as past recordings on bandcamp.com when I finished. You will know when this happens. I'll obnoxiously advertise through Facebook.

Secondly, I have applied to work as an album reviewer for and up and coming blog called Seattle Show Gal. I heard about this from my friend and current SSG writer, Dan Ahrendt. My "audition" is to review an album called Beachcomber's Windowsill by a British band called Stornoway. The review is in the works at the moment, due on Monday, the 2nd. Cross your fingers! If I get the job, I'll be a real life music critic!

That pretty much sums up what I've been thinking about in regards to writing/writing about music. The weather sure is beautiful eh?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

1973

Well, this has certainly been the toughest "best of the era" post yet. 1973 would certainly be up there if I were to do a "best year in music history" sort of list. The top two on this list have would have been the same if I'd made this seven years ago but that shouldn’t take away from the stiff competition. True classics. For the first time, I have an honorable mentions section at the end.

Gold Medal: Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin

My favorite album by one of my favorite bands. More than any other, HH shows the true mystique of the Hammer of the Gods. As great as each one of Zep’s first six albums is, this is the only record where every track is flawless. The word epic gets thrown around far too much nowadays but for this album the adjective is fitting. One of the greatest electric guitar monuments we’ve witnessed, this varied record flows perfectly from the stunning “The Song Remains the Same” to the rocking, 15/8 time strutting “The Ocean.” Listening to this album, you can’t help but feel the magic of Led Zeppelin.

Silver Medal: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you’ve ever spent any time looking at rock music criticism or blogging, you’ve read enough praise for this album to last many lifetimes. This isn’t my favorite Pink Floyd album (that would be the follow-up, Wish You Were Here) but like the first album on this post, this set of songs is a sort of a mythical sonic experience. Was there divine inspiration in the creation of this record? Probably not but there was enough pot smoke in the air to warrant some uncanny similarities to the first forty-three minutes of The Wizard of Oz. “Time” is one masterpiece of a song, and the rest of the album isn’t far behind. One of the legendary albums that undoubtedly lives up to the hype.

Bronze Medal: Dixie Chicken by Little Feat

The U.S. of A had to be represented right? Roger Waters and Jimmy Page are very talented but Lowell George more than holds a candle to the creative forces behind the above two albums. The frontman/songwriter of L.A. band Little Feat was a master craftsman of grooving Cajun-like Americana who found his stride here in 1973 but tragically passed away only six years later from a drug overdose. Dixie Chicken is one of the most underappreciated albums in existence. The smooth voice and inspired slide guitar of Mr. George along with some top-notch piano, back-up vocals, bass and percussion makes a fantastic piece of work. I’ve listened to it countless times and it just gets better and better.

Honorable mention: Quadrophenia by The Who, Paris 1919 by John Cale, Selling England by the Pound by Genesis, Countdown to Ecstasy by Steely Dan, The Captain and Me by The Doobie Brothers Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John and Innervisions by Stevie Wonder

Next up, 1985-8.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Busy Doin' Nothin

A Beach Boys reference seems appropriate for this Saturday in July.

I’ve had this blog for sixteen months now and I’m still not sure what to write about and when to write about it. So…I’ll just give a good ol’ fashioned life/music update rambling.

It’s summertime and I’m working 25 hours a week at the PLU library, which means I get to spend lots of time listening to music on my headphones. On the average day, I usually listen to about three albums, which is fantastic. I’m really quite blessed to have the job I do, as boring as it is sometimes. $9.40 an hour, with no stress and lots of quality music listening? I’ll take it…

Listening to music is a very difficult task for an indecisive, mildly OCD person like myself. My “era of the month” thing has been helpful when I can’t decide what to listen to (side note, “Best of 1973" is coming soon) as well as my humongous backlog of music I’ve acquired over the last year or so that I’ve yet to listen to. And of course, sometimes I can be semi-normal and listen to a certain album just because I want to listen to it.

I haven’t had any particular revelations over the past month or so. I’m as optimistic about the future of music as ever thanks to the excellent crop of 2010 albums. I’m going to start reviewing more records and possibly writing more artist profiles here on Page 43. I haven’t started intensively studying rock criticism yet but I hope to get on that this summer before I embark fully on my capstone project in the school year. I’ve written five songs this summer as well and hope to do some recording in August.

The last five albums I’ve listen to have been: The Mission Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Nursery Cryme by Genesis, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Meat Is Murder by The Smiths and Destroyer’s Rubies by Destroyer. A nice mix of sounds there I think. If I had to take one to a desert island, it would probably be Meat Is Murder. I’m not totally enamored with any of the aforementioned records but songs like “Nowhere Fast” would be appropriate for that kind of isolated setting I think.

I’ve also become obsessed with NPR Music recently. Every music media outlet has some sort of bias but I feel this might be one of the most open-minded yet thoughtful sources out there. If you haven’t already, tune in to an episode of All Songs Considered sometime. Really great stuff.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Music History

At the end of this school year, I completed my third and final semester of music history classes. I think the last (Twentieth Century Music) was my favorite of the sequence. Over this last year and a half, I did serious research on one composer each semester; these composers were Henry Purcell, Scott Joplin and George Gershwin and perhaps someday I'll write more about them. Overall, I’ve digested lots of names and dates over this time and have really enjoyed the brief overview of musicology.

I think some of the most important concepts I’ve learned over the past year and half have had to do with philosophies on why we have music. There was the Medieval era, where universities taught music as one of quadrivium or “four ways”, along with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Despite its study as an academic subject, music in this time was usually composed for liturgical purposes. Then came the humanists and their Renaissance celebration of humanity in polyphony shortly followed by the complexities of Baroque counterpoint. Soon the pendulum swung back to the simplicity of melody in the Classical period, which was followed by rejection of strict rationality with the emotional intensity of the Romantics. And about a hundred years ago, everything split open. Soon, we would have Schoenberg creating tone rows, jazz, Debussy’s impressionism, Gershwin’s hybrid of show tunes with classical and everything in-between. Later in the century, people like John Cage, Aaron Copland, Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich would present their vastly different opinions of what music should be. And though I didn’t agree with all of these, each was fascinating.

For Twentieth Century Music, we read a book called The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross that was incredibly informative and fun to read—a killer combo for certain. The book helped me realize how vast the geography of Western music has been just in the last century alone. And going back to what I said earlier, Ross did a fantastic job outlining why each composer did what he/she did.

Part of why music is endlessly intriguing to me is that each composer has a slightly different reason for writing the music he/she does. So much thought has been devoted to music and the only real certainty is that music is important. For no one can deny that music has, does and will exist in every culture in human history. These classes I’ve taken have shown me the winding evolution of the art form and confirmed that this is a worthwhile vocation. We’ll see if I feel the same why if and when I decide to go to graduate school.

1962-5

For me, this set of years is entirely dominated by two artists: Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Of the 26 albums I own from this time, these two legends produced ten of them, and every single album in my top six (or so). The early sixties was a real turning point in pop music, as this time was sort of the second wave of rock and roll after Holly, Berry and Presley no longer were the dominant forces they had been in the previous decade.

Gold Medal: Rubber Soul by The Beatles
The Fab Four's first in their long string of masterpieces, Rubber Soul is extraordinary. I can imagine that tons of naysayers were forced to embrace the mop-tops after hearing songs like "In My Life" or "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"; this was undeniably mature stuff. It's clear that the Beatles spent substantially more time in the studio on this record than any of its predecessors and that the group's three songwriters were developing into uncommon talents, particularly John Lennon. There are enough classics here to drop the most skeptical of jaws. "Drive My Car", "If I Needed Someone", "I'm Looking Through You", "Girl" and, oh yeah, "Nowhere Man." This is the album that inspired Pet Sounds. And arguably, this is the album that turned popular music into an undisputed art form.

Silver Medal: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
You don't have look very far to find a review calling this one of the most important records ever made. I'm particularly fond of Bruce Springsteen's quote about the opening track, "Like A Rolling Stone": "...on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." After writing folk songs that inspired a generation of protesters, Bob decided to crank up the volume. After the half electric/half acoustic Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 was entirely plugged in, save the closer, "Desolation Row." This album is the product of a visionary poet on top of his game. It's abstract ("Tombstone Blues"), scary ("Ballad of a Thin Man"), goofy ("From a Buick 6", "), chillingly gorgeous ("Desolation Blues") and everything in-between. After the door to your mind is opened, you hear the ragged arrangements that suit Dylan's voice and attitude perfectly. And of course, like just about all Bob Dylan albums, the lyrics are too good to be real.

Bronze Medal: Help! by The Beatles
The third album was an incredibly tough choice but I ended up going with Help! as it continually fascinates me as much as any of records from the glorious catalogue of the Fabs. Sandwiched between the middling Beatles For Sale and the perfect Rubber Soul, Help! is like the awkward adolescent of the Beatles albums. It's not quite developed into brilliance but there is a whole lot of promise starting to show. Starting with the title track, the first original Beatles song to have nothing to do with romance or love, Help! is packed with great melodies and a new sort of melancholia never expressed by the band before. For example, "Yesterday", "Help!" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" all reach a sort of poignancy far removed from the happy-go-lucky days of "Twist and Shout." The Beatles had always written or covered sad songs, but they never sounded quite like this. And it's clear to see John and Paul getting comfortable with their yin and yang songwriting voices, e.g. "Another Girl" (Paul's bouncy optimism) followed by "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" (John's acidic pessimism).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2002

This is a bit later than expected but here nonetheless.

Gold Medal: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco

It’s hard to believe that the stars aligned for this one. The band was in turmoil, the record label situation was sketchy, the official release was delayed forever. But somehow, we have Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with all its echoing pianos, strange industrial noises and poignant lyrics. On this release, Jeff Tweedy proves himself as one of the finest living songsmiths with tracks like “Jesus Etc.”, “Radio Cure”, and “Ashes of American Flags”. It’s lines like “Distance has no way of making love understandable” that resonate for so long after hearing them delivered by Tweedy’s husky baritone voice. With two towers on the cover and an intended release date of 9/11/01, this album is a frighteningly prophetic work of art.

(taken from my October “Best of the 2000s” post)

Silver Medal: Brainwashed by George Harrison

So often when great artists try to make albums in middle/old age, the result is a crusty, pathetic attempt to recapture the spark of thirty years ago. Either that or it’s just sentimental and gross. Brainwashed is neither. In fact, it is more of a template for albums by aging rock stars. Recorded during the final years of his life, George Harrison created a masterful collection of superb songs brimming with wisdom. Yet it doesn’t come across as preachy, thanks to the interspersing of playful songs like “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” or “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” The record is wonderfully produced thanks to son George’s son Dhani and longtime friend and Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne. If listening to this album is what it’s like to be brainwashed, sign me up. There couldn’t have been a better send off for one of the true greats.

Bronze Medal: Turn On the Bright Lights by Interpol

Right when it seemed like everything that two guitars, bass and drums could do had been done, we get the debut album of this post post-punk quartet, Interpol. Taking a cue from Joy Division and Television, this band churned out an album that’s just plain powerful. Minimal yet huge, Turn On the Bright Lights expresses alienataion through catharsis. While fellow New Yorkers, The Strokes, used their mechanized, guitar-driven patterns to represent a gleeful return to your classic garage band, these guys paint pictures of dungeons with their surging riffs and thumping rhythm section. Paul Banks’ vocals are just part of the architecture, never stepping too far out of the shadows to distract from the overall tapestry of somberness. Too bad they likely set the bar to high to ever return to this level.

Next, 1962-5.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Radiohead

In my last Mast column, I commented that Radiohead was the best band making music today. Soon after I wrote that and read it in print, I thought that I should probably back that up. You can’t just say something like that with no plan of presenting evidence. My apologies.

The truth is, Radiohead does what no other artist—except maybe the Beatles—has done in rock music. They have reinvented themselves countless times yet remain immensely popular, brilliant and on the cutting edge with every record, with the exception of their mediocre debut, Pablo Honey. But hey, everyone needs a bit of time to mature. Even the Beatles.

Their sophomore release, The Bends stands as one of the best alternative rock albums of the 1990s. Songs like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Black Star” contain a certain emotional power that makes contemporaries like Oasis and Weezer, look, well…silly. The band’s next offering, OK Computer is the album that many music critics thought would save rock ‘n’ roll. Today, alternative music is essentially divided into two eras: pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer. Just about everything has been said about that 1997 album, so I won’t blather on. It’s a sonic experience that and contrary to what might be assumed from the record’s title, the album is much better than OK. It’s an inspiration.

The Oxford quintet’s next album was the one that Rolling Stone and Pitchfork (possibly the two most influential critical publications in existence) deemed the best of the last ten years. If OK Computer was supposed to save rock music, the follow-up, the year 2000’s Kid A, was the one that would turn the genre upside down. Filled with electronic sounds and other abstract experimentations, the band’s fourth release was one recorded amidst band turmoil but comes out sounding like a focused, revolutionary piece of art. From the spooky “Everything In It’s Right Place” all the way to the ethereal “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the album Kid A sounds like post-modernism had its first child.

The next seven years saw the release of Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, three albums that made fellow British bands like Muse and Coldplay cry softly while continuing to crank out lesser works. I love certain songs by the aforementioned bands but competing with Radiohead is like playing one-on-one with LeBron James. It ain’t gonna happen.

Part of what makes Radiohead so remarkable is the fact that they reach a level of musical depth that is usually reserved for only the finest classical composers, far removed from the low-browness of—gasp!—pop music. Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien combine to create music that hardly fits any genre, assuming that idyllic rock is not a recognizable term yet. There should be a new album released within the next year, though little information is known. If this decade is anything like the last two, Radiohead will rule the roost.

Also, on an unrelated note, check out my recent Belle and Sebastian review.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Atonality

I’m a few weeks away from completing my third and final semester of music history. They’ve gone in chronological order and this one is called “Music Since 1900.” As expected, we’re delving into some pretty weird music; that’s kind of what happened in the classical music world after the Romantic era. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this so-called avant-garde music. I’m talking specifically about composers like Schoenberg, Boulez, Cage, Berio, VarĂ©se and Babbitt. The term “avant-garde” comes from the French word “vanguard”, which means the front part of the army, or the soldiers who can see what’s ahead before the rest of the regiment. I’ve never been particularly drawn to experimental music though I have tried very hard. But it hasn’t been until recently that I think I can explain why my love affair with atonal music has never taken off.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m fascinated by these renegade artists, desperately trying to do what hasn’t been done before. That’s the true artistic sprit and I respect that. What I don’t particularly respect is the desire to abandon tonality all together. By the way, in case you weren’t sure, tonality/harmony is our basic system of how notes are put together. Scales, chords, the building blocks of music. Atonality means that there’s no clear hierarchy of pitches. You will hear many C pitches in the key of C, but in an atonal key you’ll probably hear as many Cs as you will F sharps. Here’s an analogy I have for the purely atonal composer:

Western harmony is like the English language—there are infinite possibilities of expression within its rules. It serves as a sort of contract between the reader and writer; I follow the basic conventions of spelling, grammar and syntax and you will try to understand these words. But say I’m bored with the English language and feel that everything’s been said before. Why not abandon the rules in search of a fierce, new method of artistic expression? Dae dgnolsi h cab naits abes nnaho j. That’s why. When you abandon the common practice, it’s very difficult to move the audience to feel anything other than confusion or boredom.

By the way, did you notice that if you read that backwards, it spells “Johann Sebastian Bach is long dead”? Yeah, probably not. Just like you probably couldn’t tell that a piece by Pierre Boulez is organized meticulously in total serialism with no dynamic, rhythm or pitch repeating until you’ve heard all the other eleven possibilities he’s decided to use.

As a dedicated music student, I have always hoped that I would become fully acceptant of avant-garde and appreciate it like all the sophisticated scholars seem to do. Maybe I will when I’m older. But right now, I see completely abandoning tonality as a fruitless effort. After hearing music from soon after we’re born, our ears have learned to associate certain combinations of notes in certain ways, much like words. Thinking of music as a science, trying to make new discoveries through formulas is nothing but exclusive, which is the exact opposite of what music’s purpose has been since the first note was sounded back in the caveman days. Inclusivity is pretty much the most important word in my understanding of the art form.

Another significant word in the above paragraph is “completely.” Completely abandoning tonality is something I’m against but temporarily abandoning it is entirely different. In this circumstance, it becomes an effect. Like how “Revolution 9” shows that the Beatles were aware of the world around them without entirely throwing everything in their past out the window. Or how a particularly crunchy chord in a Sonic Youth song represents a sort of angst-ridden dissonance. I think atonality should be one of the tools on an artists belt, much like a writer can occasionally use unconventional methods to portray a certain attitude when he/she is REALLY F$&%ing craaaaazzzzzzzyyyyyyyyyy and kneeds to gett that aCroSs!

I absolutely love learning about other musicians’ understanding of what music is supposed to be. In a lot of ways, it’s like studying various theologies, forcing you to start challenging your own deep-rooted beliefs. Some twentith century composers have certainly done that for me but this is where I stand now regarding purely atonal music. I realize every composer is different so this is an overarching generalization. Still, I’m pretty confident with these opinions at the moment. Make me change my mind.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Finest of Indie Today

This October, I attended one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever witnessed. It was at the Moore Theater in Seattle, and it featured Grizzly Bear. It was one of those, “I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is (blank)” moments like critic Jon Landau had after a Bruce Springsteen concert nearly thirty years ago. From the moment the Brooklyn quartet kicked off its set with “Southern Point”, the opening track on their recent album, Veckatimest, I was mesmerized. Even after spending hours listening to their two most recent albums, hearing new live arrangements of the group’s unique brand of neo-psychedellia was like discovering the songs all over again. Breathtaking, exhilarating, jaw-dropping, any word that could describe the sight of the most perfect sunrise over the most majestic mountain range.

But that hour and a half of ecstasy wasn’t even all that was great about that evening. Opening for Grizzly Bear was The Morning Benders, a band from Berkeley, California whose four members look like they may still be in high school. Despite their young appearance, the group’s music is mature beyond their years, filled with three part harmonies and reverberant guitars that seem to draw on classic and modern influences such as the Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket. Having hardly heard of the group and not expecting much from an opener, this was a more than pleasant surprise to begin the evening.

This isn’t about one concert experience however; this is about a lineage that started at the top. The greatest band of our generation is Radiohead. Many may disagree with that statement; that’s fine. Just one columnist’s opinion that is very unlikely to change. Grizzly Bear opened for that royal five headed genius machine in the summer of 2008, with prodigious Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood taking a rare turn at the mic between songs to dub Grizzly Bear as his favorite band, stunning the New Yorkers, as they themselves are heavily influenced by Radiohead. As Grizzly Bear’s fame grew, the band chose two disciples of their own to tour with them at different times: the aforementioned Morning Benders and Beach House.

Beach House consists of Baltimore duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, and while I am yet to see them live (a Seattle concert in April sold out before I could purchase tickets), their recorded sound just melts away at your soul. Instead of the echoing guitars of The Morning Benders, Beach House is driven by intimate organs, synthesizers and lush vocals courtesy of the French chanteuse Legrand, whose deep alto is reminiscent of the late Nico. While The Morning Benders songs are soaked in bouncy youthful buoyancy, Beach House’ music is dense and flowing, as if the soundtrack to a dream.

Four of the best albums of the last several years are related by a common thread of having shared a concert stage. In Rainbows by Radiohead, Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear, Teen Dream by Beach House and Big Echo by The Morning Benders are all proof that rock music is as artful now as it ever has been, with no signs of slowing down. I can only wait patiently for the next descendant to be discovered.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ch ch ch changes

This week, I decided to change my major. Instead of a Bachelor of Music in Composition, I’ve decided to do a Bachelor of Musical Arts degree. About eleven months ago, I was going through the exact opposite switch. In thirteen months, I’ll graduate. There’s a reason for this flip-flopping though.

You probably know that I’m sort of a big fan of music. Just a bit. But this fanaticism has two sides. First off, I love to create new music. Nothing gives me more pleasure than finishing something and hearing it in its final form, be it a song or a piece. And then there’s the musicological side. That’s the one that reads Wikipedia articles when I should be doing homework. Or actually pays attention in music history class when everyone else is bored out of his/her mind.

This dichotomy doesn’t seem like it should be a problem; in fact, it seems like an ideal situation. One loves the craft and the craftsmen before you. Voila! Master composer right? After declaring BMA my freshman year, I decided that I should devote myself to composing and changed at the beginning of this year to BM. Then I proceeded to do almost no composing this year and thought maybe that was a sign that I shouldn’t do this. I can’t really explain why, but composing became stressful which is the opposite of what it should be. Perhaps because it became an obligation. I thought, hey, I don’t want my senior year to be even more stressful so maybe I shouldn’t do this. Not to mention that the alternative could be very attractive.

The way the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree works is that for your senior capstone project, you do something that involves music and a cognate field, or a minor, which in my case it English writing. To me, this translates into music criticism, something I consider myself decent at, probably even better than composing. This may change, but right now, it looks like I’ll be doing an in-depth look at rock criticism and how and why it has played a role in the development of the genre. I may also be looking at different styles of writing but right now this is quite embryonic.

I still plan on making music like always. Just because I’m no longer majoring in composition doesn’t mean I won’t keep producing music. I just never really found myself gelling with the idea of being a serious composer of modern classical music. Maybe someday I will. A bachelor’s degree certainly doesn’t map out the rest of my life. But for now, I feel more passionate about criticism so that’s where I’m going here at PLU.

Here on Page 43, expect an upsurge. If I’m going to really dig into criticism, this will go up on the priority list. I plan to read a lot, listen a lot, write a lot. It’s what I want to do anyway. Now that it’s my area of study, why not go all out? I haven’t written any big huge manifestos in a while. It shall be fun.

*Chris Ferguson knew the last subheading, "Born Under Punches" by Talking Heads. Who's got the next one?

Friday, April 9, 2010

1992-94

As promised, here is the next edition of my series. Seems like the early nineties was a great time for depressed singer/songwriters. I like the Olympics, even though they’re over, so I’ve decided to keep the format.

1992-1994

Gold Medal: Grace by Jeff Buckley

The first time I heard this album, I remember totally exhausted by the end. The sheer emotion just takes a toll but in a good way. This is not background music; this is power in sound. In the only complete album in Jeff Buckley’s lifetime, the man went all out. His remarkable range as a singer, arranger and songwriter is put on full display with all the confidence in the world. For example, “Corpus Christi Carol (For Roy)” preceded the song “Eternal Life” on the second half of the album, going from angelic to grungy in a heartbeat. Jeff Buckley’s name always comes up when I think about the most raw talent in a rock musician. Every one knows “Hallelujah” but the title track is what brings down the house for me. Desert island material.

Silver Medal: Roman Candle by Elliott Smith

Like Buckley, Elliott Smith’s music is dangerous. Listening to his music can just turn me to Jell-O so I have to be careful. If I’m not in the mood for Jello-O, no Elliott. But the second late songwriter on this list works in a totally different way than the first. While Buckley uses epic arrangements, on this, his first album, Smith hardly uses anything more than his voice and an acoustic guitar. Not to mention, half the songs are nameless! But like just about everything he touched, the songs on this album are golden. One hardly even notices the poor recording quality or the lack of variety is instrumentation. Each one is a captivating work of art. I just shake my jealous head.

Bronze Medal: Automatic For The People by REM

The most commercially successful album by the great Athenians, AFTP just has the right combination of craftsmanship and classic REM “we don’t give a shit” mentality. It’s pristinely produced, with the help of former Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and has a more accessible vibe than any of REM’s past work—“Man On The Moon” and “Everybody Hurts” have found themselves on more mix tapes than just about any other songs by this band, save “Losing My Religion.” Still, songs like “Ignoreland” and “Star Me Kitten” show that these boys, led by Michael Stipe, are the same horny rebels that they’ve always been.

Next up, 2002.

Also check out my recent Big Star tribute here.

*Last week's subheading was from Electric Light Orchestra's "Rockaria."


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

1982-1984

I've decided to devote each each month to a particular era in time and pick my favorite music from that time. It sounds random and nerdy (both true) but it makes the decision easier when I don't know what to listen to.

Here's February, a fierce competition between albums released in 1982 and 1984:

Gold Medal: Murmur by REM

This was not a difficult choice. I've written a review on this album but I'll try to summarize. This album sounds totally fresh every time I listen. Every guitar hook, snare back beat, bass meandering and vocal snarl fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Every song is crafted perfectly. They're catchy but not remotely cliche—something very difficult to pull off consistently. REM would continue to have a great career but their debut will always be their best effort.

Silver Medal: War by U2

Popularity has turned U2 into a sort of an institutional ego. With their extravagant stages at concerts and songs that try to change the world with every chord, it's hard for me to dish out many compliments. For that reason, I often forget how great War is. As a bunch of twenty-somethings, this quartet made one of the great albums of the 1980s with their third album. Not only are the songs genuinely powerful and honest, there is a sound on this album quite unlike anything released before or after. I'd call it a post-punk with a twist of chamber pop and gospel. Not to mention, the recurring thread of protest and activism never sounded so desperate.

Bronze Medal: Thriller by Michael Jackson

For being the best selling album of all time, I finally acquired this much later than I should have. But now I fully understand the hype. Sure, it is about as a poppy as they come but is that really a bad thing? This record is a testament to the collaboration of a great performer, great producer and perfect timing. Michael and Quincy Jones sculpted an album that really can't possibly be improved. The execution of these, the most danceable songs ever recorded, is perfect. It's a huge part of our culture for good reason. But it's not on the podium for being the soundtrack to a generation. It's here because it's a fantastic album.

Coming soon, 1992 through 1994.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Radio Goo Goo, Radio Ga Ga

This song totally brings me back to freshman year of high school for some reason.

Some of you might already know this but…drum roll please…I am now a disc jockey! Every Saturday from 7-8 pm, I will host a show (no name yet) on the PLU student radio station, KCCR. I’d thought about doing this for several months but eventually decided it was adding on to my already very full plate. Then I made a guest appearance on my friend Alex’s show and had so much fun, I decided to sign up for one of my own even if I don’t really have time for it. I’m stoked though. It’s yet another way to get my very strong musical opinions out to the world! Muahahaha!

I’ve decided to choose the songs for my show based on a theme for that given week. I live doing for this kind of stuff. Maybe it will be days of the week (“Stormy Monday”, “Tuesday’s Dead”, “Wednesday Morning, 3 am” etc.) or women’s names (“Celia”, “Michelle”, “Emily” etc.) or colors (“Paint It Black”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes” etc.).

For the first week, I think I’m going to choose a bunch of songs that are the first on their respective albums. I don’t want to say why or what I’ll be choosing; you need incentive to listen. Let’s just say there will be some hits and some esotericism.

So you should all clear your schedules on Saturday night and listen!!

*And Chris Ferguson wins the prize for Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" as last week's subheading.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Five Albums

As I’ve posted before, I strongly believe that we should try to make good use of all we get. That’s part of why I write this blog. I have so much to say about music because I listen to it so much and I think perhaps, there might be a few people who might possibly be informed by my opinions. Just one would make it worth it.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to write about right now. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on a paper for my philosophy class so I thought this might be a nice change of pace. I thought I’d just give a list of the last five albums I’ve listened to and how I feel about them at this very moment. Ranked from most to least recently listened to.

Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth

This is one of those classic, divine albums for many of those underground folks out there. Number one album of the 1980s for Pitchfork, hip cats think it’s cool. I’m not a die-hard fan but I certainly like Daydream Nation more than I did when I first borrowed it from my friend Chris in high school. Sonic Youth has a totally original language of guitar dissonance and noise. It’s not exactly pretty but it’s fascinating. The album is long but it’s totally unique and hugely influential which definitely counts for something in my book. 3.5 stars.

Superfly by Curtis Mayfield

I’ve heard so much about Curtis Mayfield but I just listened to this soundtrack album for the first time. And whoah. Funky, addictive, powerful, just…yes! As far as my limited knowledge of soul goes, this reminds me more of the incredible What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye than anything else but I think I daresay I might like it better. Why Curtis Mayfield isn’t a household name is beyond me. Yes, I’ve listened to this album once but I already know that I’m gonna fall in love with it. No rating yet. It’s will be high though.

Keep It Like A Secret by Built To Spill

I wrote a newspaper article about this band a few months ago. Most of what I could say about them has been said there and it's no longer available online (what happened to archives, Mast people?). But more in reference to this specific album, I just got really excited about Keep It Like A Secret over the last year or so. It’s got so much edge to it. I love “You Were Right” which blatantly quotes about a dozen famous rock songs (“You were right when you said a hard rain’s gonna fall”) or “Broken Chairs,” the epic closer every indie rock album dreams of. The only problem is that the thick density of wailing guitars can get a wee bit tiresome. 4 stars.

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

I want to fall in love with this album. I really do. But I can’t. I’m sorry John. I just don’t get it. Yes, I understand it’s your spiritual enlightenment put into musical form and all the glory is to given to God. That’s awesome. Unfortunately, I’m never completely hooked. A whole lot of jazz saxophone. But I’ll never stop trying. Truly. Coltrane is a brilliant mind I’m sure. Maybe I just need to do some hallucinogenic drugs before listening next time. 3 stars.

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo is one of those bands (like Soundgarden or Pixies) that despite not liking their genre all that much, I really dig their music. The genre that’s typically attached to this album is “dream pop” which basically means surreal, ambient music with loose structural content. I’ve only listened to this album once as well but it’s incredibly relaxing albeit a bit longer than it needs to be at 77 minutes. The vocal delivery of Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan is so easy; I just want them to sing me lullabies. No rating yet. 3.5 maybe?

That was kind of fun. Maybe I’ll do this again sometime.

*Last subheading was from "All I Wanna Do" by The Beach Boys

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Good Vibrations

A couple of weeks ago I finished a book called Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys. It wasn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read but I got it for 50 cents so it was definitely worth it. And this isn’t a book review anyway. I’m hoping that now I will be able to give a more informed blog post about one of my favorite musical artists: The Beach Boys.

My first exposure to the Beach Boys probably came from listening to the now defunct “oldies” radio station, 97.3 KBSG, when I was in grade school. Of course this was before I took music seriously and like most people when they think of this band, I thought of the music as “fun.” They sang about cars and surfing and had a sort of addictive vocal harmony that I still bask in today. When I started getting more into researching and discovering music, it came to my attention that the Beach Boys weren’t just a hit-machine from the early to mid-sixties. This album Pet Sounds was quite well respected by critics universally. In fact, Rolling Stone named it the 2nd best album of all time behind the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. High praise. I acquired it. I haven’t looked back.

If I could summarize the book I just read in a phrase it would be, “Good music, selfish people.” It’s quite sad how much pain the institution that is the Beach Boys has caused over the last fifty years with all the lawsuits, drugs, mental illness, debauchery etc. It’s incredibly ironic how peaceful and upbeat the majority of their music is.

All the terrible things that happened within the Beach Boys does not change my opinion of their music at all. If anything, it’s quite admirable that they were able to record such harmonious music. Before I go on, I’d like to clarify that while some of their later albums were a collaborative process, much of the group’s catalogue is more like the Brian Wilson Experience, as Brian wrote and arranged the entirety of Pet Sounds by himself (excluding the lyrics), with the other four providing vocals only, exactly as he dictated.

But why do I like the Beach Boys so much? I think it has to do with the spiritual, transcendent quality of some their best music. That youthful sound of the blend of their voices is just gorgeous. Not to mention, the remarkably complex arrangements that sound as clear as day, both vocally and instrumentally. If you haven’t heard “God Only Knows,” you haven’t lived. I don’t think I’d be able to name my absolute favorite song but I have no doubt that it would be in the conversation. I know that it’s Sir Paul McCartney’s favorite, if that means anything (which it should!).

Forty-four years after it’s release, Pet Sounds has sort of become an essential to any well-versed music fan’s collection. Yet, in my experience, the Beach Boys have never been synonymous with the respect given to many of their contemporaries in the immensely creative 1960s. Well, I will make it my personal mission to change that. Get Pet Sounds, and after that Sunflower and Surf’s Up and after that, everything else from 1965 through 1971. A whole lot of wow.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hagstom EP

So I've spent the last few days slaving away on this eighteen minute mini-album. For future reference, here's a handy equation: (perfectionism) + (crappy recording equipment) = (massive frustration). But thankfully I'm done now. That was sooooo last decade.

Anyway, the music is now up on Myspace. The EP consists of the first five songs listed on my page, in order, from "Everything Ersatz" through "The Harbor." The title of the EP comes from the brand of the guitar I just purchased (it's a Swedish company by the way). This electric guitar made up the vast majority of sounds you'll hear on the album. Basically, I wanted to record the best music I could without using anything more fancy than GarageBand on my own computer. I wrote the songs over the past few months, and did almost all of the recording over the past couple of weeks. I recorded bass, electric guitar, keyboard, trumpet and vocals and used pre-recorded loops for the drums. Unlike the heavily acoustic Wiegand EP in May, this one is very much electric.

I hope you like it.

Everyone's Sayin' Music is Love

The title is inspired by the slightly crazy, totally amazing David Crosby.

In March, I wrote about a sort of democracy of music tastes. I said that anyone who’s been moved by music at some point, no matter who made that music, is on the same level of understanding. I found myself stinking of hypocrisy a couple months ago when I criticized a music professor who listened to something I deemed “insincere.” I’m very grateful to my roommate, Taylor, who challenged my criticism, not because he liked the music, but because of the high horse I was clearly riding on.

My anger was because this professor, a man who’d dedicated his entire life to music education, had the audacity to listen to something that I thought sucked. He had been studying the menu from the finest musical cuisine yet still found nothing wrong with dumpster diving. Or at least this is how I saw it. Here’s why I was so misguided:

Music is all about love and inclusivity—not elitism and division. Think of the most basic function of music in ancient cultures: celebration, bringing people together, enjoyment. Newsflash: NOTHING’S CHANGED. In the modern (postmodern?) world where we have easy access to just about any music that’s ever been made, we have the same reasons to like what we do; it excites us, ignites us, inspires us. Of course, anyone and everyone is entitled to negative opinions, but to say that someone’s instinctual enjoyment of a certain music is flawed? That’s nothing short of an abomination.

Let me again make the ever-important distinction: criticizing music is good, criticizing musical taste is bad. Say John Doe listens to my three least favorite artists. Not only that, they are his three favorite artists. As much as this may irritate me, if this is getting J.D. to feel good about himself or start to think about music as more than just sound waves, he’s an ally.

This is a bit of a slippery slope nonetheless. If John asks me how I feel about these artists, I shouldn’t lie just to keep his enjoyment intact. Let’s not jump on the moral relativism bandwagon here. What would be the point of a critic who didn’t have any negative opinions? Yes yes yes, it’s essential to have critics influence the state of the art and the intelligent listener. But this sort of stuff is all secondary to spreading the greater love for music. People who read criticism are typically deep music lovers as it is and want to learn and discover as much as they can, which can’t be done if everything they find is complimentary and positive.

But to wrap it up, going back to this professor of mine, I still respect him despite the fact that I’m not exactly thrilled with some of the music he listens to. But losing respect for him is sort of like refusing to talk to someone with different political or religious views. This professor has been wildly successful in stirring up people’s passion about music. Isn’t that exactly what I’m trying to do here?

The Best of 2009

I acquired ten albums released this year, eight of which I’ve spent serious time listening to. Either music is getting better or my music choosing skills are improving for I really like all of the albums featured in this list. As this is an end of the year list, I’ll make my general disclaimer and say that these albums are likely to be in a different order one year from now. Nevertheless, here are my top records from 2009.

1. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear

-I saw Grizzly Bear this October. It was easily one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. One of those bands that makes you excited for the future of music. This album is so incredibly beautiful and original at the same time. It won’t be for a while until their next record comes out but I’ll be quivering with anticipation as soon as anything is announced.

2. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle by Bill Callahan

-The biggest surprise on the year. I had high hopes for Grizzly Bear but this album just came out of the blue. Speaking in cryptic yet fascinating metaphors, Bill Callahan presents nine remarkable, impeccably produced songs in a smooth bass voice that’s as soothing as it is scary. My first dose of Callahan’s prolific career (he was formerly known as Smog), I’m thrilled to hear what else he’s put to tape.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

-This gets the guilty pleasure of the year award. WAP is filled with pure danceable pop but it’s put together so well that one can’t help but be in awe of the craftsmanship of this French outfit. Much like In Ghost Colours by Cut Copy last year, this is addictive enough to warrant a 4.5 star rating and a place on the podium for the final best of the year list.

4. The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists

-Colin Meloy continues to prove himself as one of cleverest songwriters of his generation. This, the fifth album from the Decemberists, is a rock opera of sorts that continues to push the band’s ability to more ambitious places. Telling the story of ill-fated lovers Margaret and Daniel with a handful of guest vocalists along the way, the album holds up as a testament to a storyteller unparalled in today’s indie rock world.

5. Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective

-Animal Collective is always in the discussion for “most advanced bands around” and this album might be there best-loved yet. Nobody has ever doubted their originality; the question for me as always had to do with their clarity. Well this album will probably go down as one of the definitive “avant-pop” albums ever made. It’s totally weird but totally together. If Radiohead is the Beatles of our generation, these guys are the Beach Boys, taking their reverb-drenched layers of voices where no band has ever approached before.

6. Hospice by The Antlers

-Man this has been a good year. At number six, we find an album that could easily be the best of another year in the past. Hospice is the result of bandleader Peter Silberman’s self-imposed isolation, telling a grim story of the death of a loved one after weeks in a hospital, recalling events from the past. The album is intimate yet grandiose, easily changing between shoegazer and singer/songwriter depending on what mood I am in.

7. Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors

-Yet another album whose artist or title has something to do with animals, Dirty Projectors are a remarkably inventive band whose rhythmic creativity attaches them to the long lost genre, progressive rock. They aren’t progressive in the gigantic songs sense, but they are in their weaving complexity and eschew of conventions sense. I’m not as in love with the album as some, partially thanks to the slightly whiny voice of lead singer, but certainly this album deserves the attention its getting thanks to its fresh, sophisticated sound.

8. Embryonic by Flaming Lips

-Good lord! When is there going to be an album that I can’t attach the words “remarkably original” to? This might be the most individual of the group, which makes sense, considering it’s recorded by the freakiest group of the last twenty plus years. Embryonic is 70 minutes of craziness, and while it’s amazing in its sheer magnitude, it isn’t always the easiest meal to swallow. Nonetheless, the Lips better get recognized as one of the genre’s most original forces by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame sometime in the not so distant future.

*Congrats to Nate Rogers who got last month's subheading courtesy Elvis Costello.