Staff Picks: Music
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles conquering the U.S. market and billboard charts, here are a list of groups in our collection that may well have never existed had it not been for the transformative power of the Fab Four and their contribution to the evolution of music. These groups and individuals vary greatly but all of them share a link to the magical source that were the lads from Liverpool.
The Apples in Stereo
The Autumn Defense
The Smith Westerns
She and Him
Let it be
The work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt can operate on multiple levels and register differently from piece to piece. His pared down approach to composition has led critics to place his music within the minimalist tradition though such a category diminishes the range of his work and the influences of Gregorian chants and sacred music. The music can both ecstatically soar with a bang as well as level off into lyrical serenity. Both modern and timeless, the chorales are marked with spiritually affirmative overtones and yet there are also works that are haunting, solemn laments. He may well be today’s most well-known composer, having produced a treasure trove of symphonies, chorales, and operas.
Looking for artists similar to those you already know about and enjoy? Well, we’ll try to make suggestions that expand your musical listening experience by connecting like-sounding artists together.
• Liked Jackson Browne, try Dawes
• Liked The Avett Brothers, try The Felice Brothers
• Liked Neko Case, try Laura Marling
• Liked Miles Davis, try Chet Baker
• Liked MGMT, try The Flaming Lips
• Liked The Cocteau Twins, try Beach House
• Liked New Order, try The Knife
• Liked Bob Marley, try Peter Tosh
• Liked Billie Holiday, try Diane Krall
• Liked The White Stripes, try Wanda Jackson
• Liked Wilco, try Fleet Foxes
• Liked Pink, try Robyn
• Liked Bon Iver, try Elliott Smith
• Liked Mumford and Sons, try The Head and the Heart
• Liked Frank Sinatra, try Kurt Elling
the head and the heart
The 8-disc compilation The 100 Best Jazz Tunes of the 1950’s is an absolutely fantastic introduction to the music of jazz for both the well-versed aficionado as well as the eager novice seeking to expand their listening library (see: My co-worker Kevin King's previous post). This was a great decade for jazz development, ushering in various stylistic trends including Bop, Post-Bop, Cool and the first signals of what one might refer to as Free Jazz. It’s a who’s who of legendary musicians from Jazz's heyday, many of whom are featured playing their signature tunes. Included are Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Django Reinhardt, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Charles Mingus, and many more. If you just wanted to add a little bit of Jazz to your iTunes library, this is the one title to start with.
The 100 Best Jazz Tunes of the 1950's
If you like the sound of old school soul music, be sure to get your ears on the work of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. A recent bout of cancer hasn't diminished her expressive, lived in voice and while it may impact her future touring, her newest album Give the People What They Want reflects both her personal strength and her top notch, musical chops.
Give the people what they want
Jake Bugg, teenage sensation and dedicated follower of vintage leanings, is back with his sophomore album Shangri La. His first, a full-fledged mixture of Dylanesque folk and heartfelt ballads akin to a blending of Donovan, Travis and Oasis came out of nowhere last year to critical acclaim and commercial success and so with his follow-up, Bugg revs up the tempo with some harder edged tunes. He throws in a few twists and turns with instrumentation and stylistic touches absent from the first record but the bold freshness of a year ago feels a smidgeon stale. While the record isn’t much of a leap in creative development, neither does it suggest signs of regression or creative inertia. Fans of the first album will want to give it a listen.
Fans of the violin will want to get their ears on Daniel Hope's newest album Spheres. This is a wonderfully ecclectic array of compositions that highlight his rich and "big" violin sound. Hope has selected pieces that represent a wide range of styles (Baroque, minimalism, chill-out and cinema) and time periods (17th Century through to the present). Overall, it's a beautiful collection that really brings forth a sense of both musical and emotional continuity. Some of the composers featured are Johann Sebastian Bach, Arvo Part, Philip Glass, Karl Jenkins, Michael Nyman, Alex Baranowski, and Gabriel Faure.
C’mon, who doesn’t love Neko Case? There are just so many reasons for why you should. If for some unfathomable reason, you’ve been able to live this long having never heard of her and the wonderfully rich music that she makes, pick up everything we have, especially her newest album, the absurdly, long winded titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
If you like your music with a bit of country dust on top, that leaves a folksy aftertaste shot through with a rootsy twang and a side of acoustic lyricism and sweet melody, check out these acclaimed musicians and their new and upcoming releases.
Dream River, Bill Callahan
Magpie and Dandelions, The Avett Brothers
Gone Away Backward, Robbie Fulks
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, Neko Case
About Farewell, Alela Diane
Honky Tonk, Son Volt
Wilderness, Handsome Family
Harold Budd has been making minimalist, ambient music for a long time. Gentle and expressive, Budd’s compositions are full of open space and long pauses with instrumentation woven in between the silences. The melodic substance of a piece takes a bit of time to unfold but patient, attentive music lovers looking for an alternative to traditional, classical music genres will appreciate the Zen-like economic elegance of Budd’s work.
In the Mist
The first time I heard a Porcelain Raft (the project of Mauro Remiddi) song was their contribution to the film Celeste and Jesse Forever; an infectious, electro-pop tune called Drifting In and Out. It's a great song that epitomizes their sound: a mixture of melodic, mid-tempo numbers that are filled with lyricism and sorrow. The singing is rock solid and recalls the anguished melancholy of Jeremy Enigk's work with the band Sunny Day Real Estate. Both albums really hit the spot as the gloomier, Midwestern skies turn gray and leaden. Give it a try.
Washed Out's last album Within and Without was a breezy collection of melodic and tuneful songs bathed in a heavy coat of synthesizers, subtle jabs of electronica and the ocassional sample. Their newest record doesn't deviate much from that template so if you enjoy music that is unpreteniously simple in form, that is beautifully overgrown, whisper-soft and sensual, and that sounds like "daytime psychedelia", this is your band and album.
Every year on January 1st, I start to think about my “Best of…” list that I will be compiling throughout the year. This year is heavily tilted towards music and movies. I’m sure my recommended reading list will grow as the weather grows colder. Here is my ever-expanding list of favorite albums and a few singles that have been released this year.
- Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Self Titled
- Rhye, Woman
- Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In
- Jake Bugg, Jake Bugg
- My Bloody Valentine, mbv
- Smith Westerns, Soft Will
- Eleanore Friedberger, Personal Record
- Washed Out, Paracosm
- Porcelain Raft, Permanent Signal
- Relapse by Chvrches
- Where Are We Now by David Bowie
- Just Make It Stop by Low
- Man by Neko Case
- Life Is Hard by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
The third album from the Chicago indie rock band Smith Westerns is a decent collection of very catchy, wistful rock and roll that accentuates their obvious taste for British groups like The Beatles, T-Rex, The Smiths, and Pink Floyd. There is no shortage of big, meaty hooks and gorgeous, synthed out melodies to go around on their newest long player, Soft Will.
The 1980’s produced a plethora of really, terrible music and yet as much musical detritus as should rightly ring the rim of the dustbin of history, there were groups that were visionary and prescient and whose work continues to sound fresh, new and vital today. One such album that if you knew nothing of it, would never guess that it was released in 1987 is the third Love and Rockets’ long player Earth, Sun, Moon. This was not the sound of MilliVanilli or Huey Lewis and the News. Forming out of the ashes of Post-Punk/Goth pioneers Bauhaus, Love and Rockets’ hard to categorize album flows effortlessly through 13 wonderful songs that range from noisy rockers to lyrical folk songs and everything in between. Of course, the haircuts haven't held up as well as the tunes.
Earth, Sun, Moon
Big Star, like many cult bands, only emerged from obscurity to be heralded as power pop innovators years after they had broken up. On the eve of a new documentary that chronicles their short but influential career, find out what the hype is all about by checking out their beautiful mixture of soul, pop, and rock.
Keep and eye on the sky
I wasn’t a huge fan of Vampire Weekend before the release of their third album but I have to admit, I think they’ve hit on something special with their newest, Modern Vampires of the City. Their music is still as erudite and as catchy as ever, but where their early output came across as precious and affected, the new tunes exhibit an abundance of creative skill, lyrical depth and narrative complexity. One of the best albums of 2013, get your ears on it.
Modern Vampires of the city
If you’re a fan of early 70’s Soul music, you’ll want to get your hands on a couple of albums recently added to our R&B category. Having grown up a kid in the 1970’s, I definitely have a sweet spot for the beautifully crafted songs of groups and solo artists like The Manhattans, Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, The Chi-Lites, Jackson 5, and The Spinners to name only a few. Check out the following:
The Manhattans, Sweet Talking Soul: 1965-1990
Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia
The Delfonics, Adrian Presents the Delfonics
The Delfonics, La-la Means I Love You
The Chi-Lites, The Ultimate Chi-Lites
Sweet Talking Soul, 1965-1990
Yep, she's done it again. Eleanor Friedberger, formerly of the brother/sister duo The Fiery Furnaces has released her sophmore album Personal Record and it's as great as her 2011 debut Last Summer. Friedberger composes quirky, idiosynchratic lyrics that blend seemlessly with her equally unique and recognizable voice. The music is smart, immaculately recorded pop-rock that is both innovative and endlessly catchy. Pick it up and crank it loud.
Fans of The Raveonettes, The Smith Westerns, Night Moves, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Suede, and Arcade Fire will find something in the cliché-bloated anthem rock of the band The Guards and their newest long player, In Guards We Trust. There’s nothing particular inspiring about this record given it treads over familiar ground with its thick use of dense, multi-track vocals and heavy coats of reverb that does well to cover the rather innocuous nature of the songwriting, but then again, if you’re only looking for a couple of good songs to bob your head to while heading to the beach this summer, give it a try.
In Guards We Trust
Two of today’s best musical young guns that have delivered strong albums this year are Jake Bugg and Caitlin Rose. They don’t shy away from their influences but they don’t let those who paved the musical highway for them subsume their individual voices either. Gritty and fashionable enough for the with-it crowd and accessible enough for those who have an Oasis or Taylor Swift album in their collection, these two will hopefully be in it for the long haul. Bugg has been compared to Dylan (who hasn’t?) but his brand of neo-folk has as many roots in Brit Pop. Sure, he evokes both Dylan and Donovan from time to time but he makes it work because of his lyrical earnestness and the sheer catchiness of the tunes. Rose also wrote the album that Swift only can dream that she had created. These are confidently written songs sung by a fresh voice who no doubt has listened to a few Jayhawks albums over the years. Check them both out!
For many years, the library’s musical collection consisted mostly of jazz, world and classical music. Over the past 6 or 7 years we’ve really added to that mix, many popular, alternative, hip hop, and rhythm and blues titles. We still continue to order symphonic, choral, opera, baroque and postmodern music but not nearly with the emphasis we once had given the popularity of Top 40 artists. Having said that, classical music lovers, including myself, will likely be able to find what they’re looking for. Here are some of my favorites, all of which we currently own. Stop in and browse the collection.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (Adagietto)
Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies
J.S. Bach’s Sleepers Awake
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
Karl Jenkins’ Agnus Dei
Philip Glass’ Company
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3
Fans of his band the New Pornographers will find much to like when listening to A.C. Newman’s newest solo album Shut Down the Streets. Newman is one of power pops most prolific and talented stewards and yet while there are plenty of energetic, signature anthems to chant to this summer while headed to the beach, his newest batch of songs takes a more personal and introspective turn.
Several years ago, the band Vampire Weekend were notable for successfully bringing to the ears of listeners of indie rock an Afro Pop sensibility to their catchy, pop songs. The Florida band Surfer Blood also weaves together a variety pack of genres including surf rock (Dick Dale, The Ventures), fuzzy power pop (Weezer, Waaves,The Shins) and subtle hints of Afro Pop rhythms that never sound out of place or gratuitous. Their 2010 album Astro Coast perfectly captures much of how today’s best indie rock groups are concerned with writing catchy, dance-friendly tunes, but doing so with the kitchen sink of instrumentation and influence at their disposal.
One of the best albums of 2013 is Youth Lagoon’sWonderous Bughouse. This band knows how to bug out with effortlessly, rolling psych-pop that will get inside your brain, pitch a tent and remain there for hours afterward. Fans of The Flaming Lips, Beach House, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, MGMT and Sparklehorse will find much to like about this sonic flood of colorful melodies and low-end production.
The singer Emmy Rossum is known mostly for her various television (Shameless) and film performances (The Phantom of the Opera) but she also has the trained pipes of an accomplished singer. We’re not talking about the sort of actress, who uses their fame to influence the music industry to play along with their middling vocal talents (see: Scarlett Johansson). Rossum can truly bring the noise as she clearly shows in her new album Sentimental Journey, a collection of old timey jazz standards (Autumn Leaves, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out) and retro-swinging country (Things, Pretty Paper). The album is on order so keep an eye out for it. It will be here soon. Listen to some of her renditions here.
Well, well, My Bloody Valentine has finally emerged from their twenty-plus year hiatus to release the much anticipated and discussed new album mbv. Until we can obtain the new long player for the library’s music collection, you’ll just have to find out what all of the hype is about by listening to their beloved 90's classic Loveless.
The Minneapolis band Night Moves are difficult to categorize but their debut album should be on everyone’s iPod. They draw from an array of rock and roll influences, stitching their lyrical elements together to form a solid sound of catchy tunes born of fuzzed out, alt-country mixed with glam-rock grooves. Standout songs include Horses, Country Queen and Headlights.
Richard Hawley is one of those singer songwriters that after hearing a couple of his songs, you wonder why he’s not a bigger name in the music world (he’s British, so that may explain it). After a brief stint playing guitar for Britpop hit makers Pulp in the late nineties, he set off on a solo career, culminating in seven excellent albums of wistful pop ballads soaked in lyrical reflection and reverb. Hawley’s voice is his greatest asset. He croons a bit like a throwback torch singer, sad and road weary, almost a kind of British Sinatra but with less swagger and more working class grit. His old school, rockabilly look is also suggestive of the influence of Elvis. His newest album, a bit of a sonic departure from previous albums, is less intimate and feels as though his ambient songs of forlorn pining have given way to a louder, more rock and roll Hawley.
The Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear began as a throwaway creative project for singer/guitarist Ed Droste who simply wanted to provide a name to his home recordings and musical tinkering. By 2004, a full fledge touring band had emerged, garnering positive reviews and fans alike. Combining electronic ambience with catchy and melodic folk pop that echoes a wide net of influences and sounds, their newest album Shields, is their most mature and complicated work to date. Songs are reverb-filled with everything but the kitchen sink layering of synthesizers, piano, banjo, acoustic/electric guitar, distorted drums and coupled with dreamy, hypnotic vocals. Arty noise as filtered through infectious pop songs would be an apt description of Grizzly Bear’s sonic vision. Stand out tracks include Sleeping Ute,Half Gate and Yet Again.
Even the most diehard music aficionados probably couldn’t tell you who Bill Fay was up until a month ago (I certainly couldn’t), before he and his music began to pop up in places like Mojo Magazine and NPR. Fay is a British singer-songwriter who comes from a long and storied list of forgotten or historically marginalized musicians whose little known work grew out of the legitimating influence of the artist appreciation network. This is how it works: the cult legend finds a famous rock-star like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (Tweedy has covered Fay’s songs in the past) to provide you a song of his own that you can cover (Jesus Etc.) and duet with him on your long awaited, comeback album. Your street cred will blow up and your Youtube hits will soar because of everyone wanting to go back in time (or at least to the internet) to listen to all of those great songs that you wrote that everyone had originally forsaken at the time of their release.
Fay’s early 70’s albums sound eerily like a melodic fusion of Dylan (if he played piano) and Wilco’s more plaintive tunes. They tend to be somewhat downbeat and often echo the sound of a lost but brilliant soul trying to stay true to his art while the music industry closes its door on his vision. Fay’s new album Life is People is worth a listen and has a much more upbeat vibe to it than his brooding material from long ago. Here is Fay's heartbreaking rendition of the Wilco song.
Life is people
If you love a good, bright melody like I do, check out the band Diiv’s new album titled Oshin. The vocals and lyrics are intentionally opaque and buried below the shimmering mix of reverb-doused guitar. This allows for the blossoming of these glistening, dream pop songs to unfold and unfold they do with hypnotic success. Oshin will be on my end of year list of the best music of 2012. Sounds Like: Real Estate, The Cure, War on Drugs, and Tristeza.
Father John Misty is the musical moniker of Josh Tillman, the former drummer of Seattle band Fleet Foxes. Like his former band of bearded Pacific Northwest naturalists, Father John knows how to construct moody melodies and textured folk rock that may sound akin to his former band’s harmony-rich folk pop but listen with a more attentive ear and the tracks on Fear Fun tend to stir up a playful tone that sounds lived in, messy and altogether more quarrelsome with its darker vision than the earnestness that permeates the music of Fleet Foxes. Check him out on a recent appearance on the Letterman Show.
Cat Power’s newest release Sun (release date of September 4th) feels much more produced than her previous work. There is a synth-heavy reliance on arrangements that compliment her fantastic voice and minimalist approach to songwriting. Fans of her album Moon Pix will appreciate the several songs that reflect that album’s economical approach to melody and rhythm.
Frankie Valli and the Four (4) Seasons made their mark on the popular music charts in the early 1960’s, combining heavily orchestrated melodies with doo-wop vocal harmonies. With his broad vocal range and unmistakable pipes, Valli helped the group score hit after hit, including such pop standards (aka “oldies”) as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Sherry, Walk Like a Man, Dawn (Go Away), Ronnie, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, and Working My Way Back To You. Recent interest in the group has come about recently due to the success of the Broadway production of Jersey Boys. Check out Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons: The Definitive Pop Collection for an introduction to their timeless hits.
Frankie Valli and the 4 seasons
Do you have a list of songs that simply remind you of summer or that you dust off from their Winter hibernation to crank out on your car stereo or I-pod? I like to have a couple of compact disc mixes in my car that feature some of my go-to tracks as I trek to the lake or head to the backyard cookout. What are your favorite summertime anthems?
Pavement's Cut Your Hair
The Faces' Ooh La La
The Chi-lites' Oh Girl
Michael Jackson's I Wanna Be Where You Are
The Descendents' Silly Girl
Big Star's Thirteen
Stevie Wonder's My Cherie Amor
Seals and Croft's Summer Breeze
Wilco's She's a Jar
Best Coast's Our Deal
Neil Young's Out on the Weekend
Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over
Hall and Oates' Kiss on My List
Santo and Johnny's Blue Moon, Teardrop and Sleepwalking
The two-piece band from Baltimore, Beach House, just gets better and better with each new album. Their newest release (May), the hypnotic Bloom, possesses a poise and astuteness that builds upon their previous work but that now also exhibits a fully realized sound of their own without any trace of trepidation or pandering. The songs on Bloom are sweetly coated with a luster of shimmering reverb, beautiful melodies and thoughtfully crafted lyrics that shift from the abstract image to the wistful. Beach House’s sonic pallet mixes the indulgence of despair and sadness with heartening melodies that allow for songs to flower from a place of murky, melancholic stasis to an enchanted dreamland of unique splendor. Fans of the Cocteau Twins, The Cure, and My Bloody Valentine will appreciate Bloom’s woozy exquisiteness. Check out the entire album for a limited time at NPR.org or reserve it now through the KPL catalog. Author Search: Beach House.
The Sleigh Bells have a very simplistic, musical formula: borrow heavily from the metal school of big, catchy guitar riffs (see: Slayer), loop in some heavy, pre-recorded beats and synthesizers for a rhythmic foundation, and finish things off with a not-as-good-as-Karen O vocalist, who goes back in forth between cooing and singing and you have their first two albums (Treats and Reign of Terror). I suspect that a third record of similar songs constructed with this formula will likely lose its short-term, hipster fizz but for now, if you’re looking for catchy, vacuous, Summertime anthems that meet today's zeitgeist requirements, then check out this buzzed about two-piece from Brooklyn. Best song—End of the Line.
Reign of terror
There’s a lot to dislike about the 1970’s including bell bottoms, a gas shortage, and poorly managed sideburns to name but a few but musically speaking, the radio has never been as varied as it was during this decade that saw the birth of punk, progressive rock, disco, Philly soul, funk, and a slew of fantastic singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Nick Drake, Harry Nilsson, Billy Joel, Carol King and Elton John. One of the least recognized legends of the Nashville music scene of the early seventies was Mickey Newbury, whose contributions to Outlaw Country is well documented on Drag City’s recently released An American Trilogy. Like Townes Van Zandt, Newbury’s fans have mostly been fellow musicians who revere his beautifully crafted songs. Those who sing his praise include Will Oldham, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle. Known as the first “Hippy-Cowboy”, Newbury bucked the Nashville music establishment by doing things his way. He found little commercial success for his recording of the seventies but critics have long praised his touching ballads and lyrical writing. Those who have sung and recorded Mickey Newbury penned songs include Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Roy Orbison, David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson and many more.
An American Trilogy
The Paris Sisters were the first girl group that Phil Spector produced (1961-62) prior to his working with more well known groups like The Ronettes. This collection is a real treat for those who love Spector-produced albums and those strings-heavy, pop songs about boyfriends, heartache and falling in love for the first time. The album culls together for the first time, all of the A and B-side singles from this influential group that with the help of the eccentric Spector and his talent for production, kick started the Wall of Sound style that became Spector’s trademark during the early 1960’s.
The Paris Sisters: Complete Phil Spector Sessions
I just love the sedate, retro vibe of the soundtrack to the oddball film Beginners; the Mike Mills directed roman a clef about his relationship with his widowed father. Old blues and jazz from the 1920’s (Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, and Josephine Baker) are prominently featured as well as a French horn driven suite by J.S. Bach. Interfiled between the throwback gems are several touching, original scores by Dave Palmer and Roger Niell. The back and forth tone of the film, from light hearted to melancholic, are sensibly reflected in this quirky collection. Oh, and by the way, check out the movie. It appears on our Best of 2011 list.
Beginners [sound recording] : the original motion picture soundtrack
My first exposure to the music of the Fruit Bats was from watching the movie Our Idiot Brother. Lead singer Eric D. Johnson’s fresh rendition of the hammy Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Ole Oak Tree led me to their record Tripper. Textured folk rock melded to catchy, Beatlesesque melodies (see: The Shins) is what the Bats bring to the table. There’s nothing particularly pioneering about Tripper, nothing that will blow your mind, but sometimes you’re not always going to be in the mood for creative complexity and artistic innovation. Sometimes you just want a catchy jam to get stuck in your head. For other groups who aren’t necessarily re-inventing the musical wheel but who continue to make smart, appealing records worthy of your I-Pod, see: The War on Drugs, Real Estate, Dr. Dog, Vetiver, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Here's one of the best tracks from Tripper and a stylistic nod to 1980's videos.
Having grown up listening to the famous crooners of the nineteen fifties and sixties (Nat King Cole, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis e.g.) attach their signature voices to well known holiday tunes, I struggle to embrace contemporary musicians and their slickly produced and artificial versions with much enthusiasm. But my favorite album to listen to while wrapping presents and clogging my arteries with holiday cookies is Vince Guaraldi’s timeless classic--A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was released in 1965.
A Charlie Brown Christmas [sound recording]
The sound of San Francisco band Girls is one both familiar and refreshingly new. It’s one of those records that harkens back to older influences (Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Spiritualized, British Invasion era Pop) while retaining a bright and contemporary energy that comes through these well written songs. There are plenty of beautiful ballads full of melodic tunefulness sutured together with a variety of instrumentation (flutes, acoustic guitar, keyboards, back up singers), not to mention the occasional, soaring guitar solo. But there are also a few up-tempo, catchy pop songs to contrast with the more contemplative numbers. This record will definitely be on my best of the year list.
Father, son, holy ghost
Have you noticed the trend toward two-person bands? From the White Stripes on, there appears to be an increased number of groups that have stripped down the traditional rock and roll model, forsaking interest in drummers and bassists. Here are several recently formed duos that don’t seem to be limited by a lack of group membership.
The Fiery Furnaces
She and Him
The Civil Wars
The Black Keys
Josh T. Pearson’s stark country-folk album The Last of the Country Gentlemen is a plaintive and personal work that calls to mind the rustic laments of down-and-out troubadours like Townes Van Zandt. Pearson’s approach is to lift the veil on his bittersweet melancholia with a pained voice and delicate finger plucking of his acoustic guitar, drawing in the listener to his raw confessions on love, loss and redemption.
The Last of the Country Gentlemen
Long-time fans of the noisy, art/rock band Sonic Youth will not be surprised to find out that singer/guitarist Thurston Moore has a sensitive and melodic side to his writing. Many SY songs possess these qualities of intricate melodies and emotionally compelling elements but are often buried under feedback or a whirling dervish of sonic fury. Demolished Thoughts is a beautiful record, stripped down and spare, mostly featuring acoustic guitar, harp, violin, synthesizers and the occasional wail of a strangely tuned electric guitar. Fans of Beck’s equally downcast yet beautiful record Sea Changes will likely pick up on the similarities in recording methods and overall sonic tone (Beck produced Demolished Thoughts). Moore’s lyrics are poetically abstract but always fitting of the songs’ brooding mood. If you like this record, try the work of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
For a music fan, having the opportunity to sample a record prior to purchasing it, is a great way to avoid having to sift your way through the array of online and print review sources and getting straight to the tunes. NPR now allows its listeners to listen to full album recordings prior to it’s official release. Eleanor Friedberger is one half of the brother/sister band The Fiery Furnaces, a band that better than most, bridges pop music with less than conventional experimentation to form an original sound that is truly their own (imagine if The Carpenters were a lot more weird).
This summer, Eleanor releases a solo album and it really hits the mark with strong lyrics, singing and songwriting. The record is titled Last Summer (soon to be at your KPL!) and stand out tracks include the sugary, sweet Heaven, the psych pop of Inn of the Seventh Ray and the driving opener My Mistakes, which feels like a summer anthem.
I'm Going Away
Known widely for his collaborative work with director David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti’s movie and television scores are both haunting and beautiful, resulting in a stirring mix of ominous undertones splashed with gorgeous melodies. His most well known work is the Theme to the television show Twin Peaks but he’s also scored the films Blue Velvet, A Very Long Engagement, The City of Lost Children, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive; all of which are fantastic movies filled with unique stories and oddball characters.
Music for film and television
I’ve been listening to the music of Gram Parsons lately since I watched the documentary film Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. Parsons musical gifts and passion for country and roots music was a major factor in his influencing of such legendary bands as The Rolling Stones and The Byrds. He is cited as the one who helped to usher in the genre of country rock during the late sixties when he worked with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He later introduced to the musical world a young singer songwriter named Emmylou Harris. Parsons lived fast and died young but he left behind two very strong records, GP and Grievous Angel. If you’re interested in musical documentaries, you may enjoy:
Kurt Cobain: About a Son
The Velvet Underground: Vanishing Point
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Heart is a Drum Machine: A Documentary Film About Music
Here is a video clip from the documentary.
GP [sound recording] ; Grievous angel
Over the past couple of years there has been a spike in retro-sounding soul musicians whose work echoes the groundbreaking sounds of early sixties Motown and Stax recordings. For starters, the soul enthusiast looking to delve into some of the newer troubadours will want to grab a copy of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, Fitz and the Tantrum’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and the forthcoming Raphael Saadiq’sStone Rollin’.
I Learned the Hard Way
I’d like to throw the spotlight on some recent and upcoming releases from the world of non-radio-friendly musicians that I’m excited to be ordering for the rock and folk/country collections. For the touchy feely folkies and pastoral Americanaists out there, you’ll want to get your hands on Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues (garnering big buzz and positive reviews), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, and Emmylou Harris’ Hard Bargain. For those who prefer blips, sugary melodies, fuzzed guitars, and a louder volume on their wax platter, keep your eyes peeled for the newest long players from Panda Bear, The Raveonettes, TV on the Radio, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, Telekinesis, Foo Fighters, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, and Bright Eyes.
The People's Key
Today marks the 17th anniversary of the death of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain. Cobain led the early nineties Seattle band Nirvana from college rock radio obscurity to radio-friendly, mainstream fame. Their most successful album, Nevermind, has sold close to 30 million copies worldwide. Nevermind featured their hit single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, a song that became a generational anthem of sorts, embodying Generation X’s ennui and collective angst. Of local interest, the famous photograph of Cobain that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine after his death was taken in Kalamazoo.
Crazy for You by the California band Best Coast blared from my car speakers all of last summer. This year it will be the band Tennis and their debut record Cape Dory; a thematic homage to summer sailing and an inspired musical nod to The Ronettes and early nineteen sixties, girl groups. Hardly breaking new, creative ground here, Cape Dory will still have you humming along with catchy tunes like Marathon, Take Me Somewhere, Cape Dory and Pigeon while you look cool in your tortoise shell wayfarers.
One of the overlooked treasures in our music collection is our movie and television soundtracks. We have an excellent collection that represents some of the legendary composers (Philip Glass, John Barry, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, Quincey Jones, Thomas Newman, Ennio Morricone) from the past, those who have been working for some time and the inventive scores being produced from contemporary musicians that straddle both the world of film scoring and their own personal works (Jonny Greenwood, Jon Brion, Danny Elfman, Yann Tiersen, Randy Newman). Here are some of my favorite albums from the collection.
Good Bye Lenin by Yann Tiersen
Midnight Cowboy by John Barry
Schindler’s List by Itzhak Perlman and John Williams
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion
The Hours by Philip Glass
Out of Africa by John Barry
Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti
Good bye lenin
Music lovers first heard John Grant’s amazing voice when he fronted the Denver-based band The Czars. The Czars were signed to the Bella Union label and released several critically acclaimed records throughout the late nineties and early 2000’s. Grant has now gone solo and released The Queen of Denmark, an album which received Mojo Magazine’s album of 2010 award. Fans of The Red House Painters, early Elton John, and 1970’s soft rock will enjoy Grant’s bathetic musings and one of a kind baritone.
Queen of Denmark
The Smith Westerns are a very young band from Chicago, having only released two albums, the first record coming when the members were in high school. Their sophomore effort Dye It Blonde is a catchy tour de force of power pop that has elicited comparisons to some historical heavy weights like George Harrison and T. Rex. I also hear a little bit of Oasis and Suede echoing from these well-crafted songs. There are plenty of hooks and infectious melodies to keep you humming the entire way through this album, full of hand claps, jangly guitar riffs and complimentary synthesizers. Stand out tracks include: Weekend, Still New, All Die Young, and Only One.
Dye it Blonde
Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman writes with an oddball flare yet pens some of contemporary music’s most bubbly and accessible songs. Lekman’s English delivery springs from a rich baritone that echoes the work of Stephin Merritt and Jonathan Richman, both of whom, Lekman borrows from liberally when constructing his use of deadpan phrasing and droll tales about life’s follies and love’s pitfalls. The songs draw their influence from a wide range of sources including early 70’s soul, strings-laden baroque pop, and Mexican folk music while tossing in the occasional sample. His 2007 release Night Falls Over Kortedala is truly an internationally inspired work fused together in such a way as to be seamlessly perfect. Fans of Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, 70’s Motown and The Modern Lovers will enjoy Lekman’s sunny gems.
Night Falls Over Kortedala
Having a difficult time in getting through the doldrums of a long winter? Tired of the salt on your car and the perpetually gray skies? Well, kick yourself out of your gloomy ennui with some music that will evoke the summertime sun and lakeside vistas waiting just around the corner. Here are some great albums known for taking your mind to a warmer, mental climate.
Sunflower/Surfs Up by The Beach Boys
Crazy for You by Best Coast
Exodus by Bob Marley
Creedence Clearwater Revival by CCR
#1 Record/Radio City by Big Star
King of the Beach by Wavves
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement
Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
The Original by The Ventures
Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks
Sun Flower; Surf's Up
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently chose to induct the following musicians: Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper Band, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Art Rupe, Jack Holzman, and Darlene Love.
The music world lost some of its most talented and accomplished musicians this year. Here is a short list of several artists whose works can be found and enjoyed here at the library.
Alex Chilton (Big Star)
Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse)
Ari Up (The Slits)
Pete Quaife (The Kinks)
Doug Fieger (The Knack)
Keep an eye on the sky
I've listened to Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Chet Baker and others associated with cool jazz for some time now but I've only recently taken to the lyric warmth and catchy melodies of Stan Getz, aka The Sound. Getz was a prominent tenor saxophonist during the fifties and sixties. In addition to his accomplished recordings, he is credited, along with his one-time collaborater Joao Gilberto, for helping to turn American audiences on to Brazillian bossa nova in the early sixties. The library owns several of Getz's albums. Check him out.
Getz/Gilberto [sound recording] : featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim
Now that we are firmly grounded within the download era, many music lovers choose to bypass the purchasing of a full length album and elect instead to add individual songs or hit singles to their digital libraries. Here are a few songs released during 2010 that struck a chord with my ears. How about you? Let us know which tracks resonated with you throughout the year.
Zebra by Beach House
Revenge by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse
Slow by Twin Shadow
Dark Fantasy by Kanye West
Heaven and Earth by Blittzen Trapper
Does Not Suffice by Joanna Newsom
Sex Karma by Of Montreal
Blue as Your Blood by The Walkmen
Carolina by Girls
Heart in Your Heartbreak by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Our Deal by Best Coast
Animal by Jenny and Johnny
Have One On Me
The album Dark Night of the Soul will certainly be in my top ten of best of the year. Sadly, Mark Linkous, the primary writer of this brilliant piece of moody, pop music textured with hints of electronica and whimsical folk, took his life in March of this year prior to the album’s release. Linkous is at his songwriting best here and by forming collaborations with other guest artists (The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Director David Lynch, The Strokes’ front man Julian Casablanca, Vic Chesnutt, Suzanne Vega, and The Shins’ James Mercer, Nina Persson), including the music industry’s most in-demand producer--Danger Mouse, each song’s singer provides a fresh meditation on Linkous’ grim lyrics and buoyant songs.
Fans of this album should look into Linkous’ previous musical project Sparklehorse in addition to the work of those he collaborated with over the years including Daniel Johnston, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and Fennesz.
Dark Night of the Soul
I recently discovered the Israeli pianist and composer Anat Fort and found that I have a great affinity for her and her trio’s hybrid sound that deftly weaves together both the rhythms and instrumentation of jazz with the plaintive austerity and minimalist ambiance of music akin to classical works or even touches of New Age. Her eclectic influences span from John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Elvis Costello to piano master Bill Evans. This collision of influences and styles works in fresh and innovative ways through her newest album And If. The attentive listener will appreciate the ways in which Fort merges the beautiful with the bleak, gentle melodies with avant garde timing, and romantic touches with flashes of emotional exuberance.
And if [sound recording]
The Raveonettes are a Danish rock duo who compose infectious, fuzzed out pop songs that pay homage to the early sixties girl groups like The Ronettes as well as a reverential nod toward the reverb drenched tunes of eighties shoe gazers, The Jesus and Mary Chain. Their album Lust Lust Lust is a fantastic introduction to their sound, one that clearly draws its inspiration from earlier rock and roll pioneers but that does not come off as derivative or self consciously retro. You’ll be humming these catchy tunes all summer long as you trek west for some fun under the sun.
Lust Lust Lust
Bob Parlocha was born to have a radio show. Richly textured and oozing with experience and knowledge, Parlocha’s voice is as smooth as the jazz singers and musicians he features on his radio show. Regrettably, I seldom listen to his fantastic playlists, mostly because he hits the airwaves at 10pm, nevertheless, I rarely ever steer away once I’ve tuned in. Parlocha’s program is well balanced in that it draws attention to both the seminal musicians from the past (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Stan Getz) as much as it highlights current artists and their new releases. If you can stay up later than I can and you love jazz, be sure to check out Nocturnal Transmissions. Don’t forget to drop by the library to browse our large collection of jazz compact discs.
Orchestrion [sound recording]
If ever I was hard pressed to name a favorite song or piece of music, Samuel Barber’s masterpiece Adagio for Strings would likely top the list. Like many, my first exposure to Barber’s famed work, with its evocative and emotionally charged beauty, came from its inclusion within Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon (winner of Best Picture of 1986). One of the twentieth century’s most recognized songs, Adagio for Strings elevated Barber’s reputation, placing him alongside other notable American 20th Century composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. Barber’s lesser known work Knoxville: Summer of 1915, developed for soprano (with lyrics) and orchestra, is a romantic and nostalgic work often played during the summer months for its suggestive and wistful feeling.
NPR recently took a look at Barber’s Adagio for Strings, analyzing its musical structure in order to better appreciate and understand its power to move and stir human emotions.
The San Francisco-based two-piece Girls (comprised of two men) came out of nowhere last year, landing on several end of the year lists for best album. Their debut, unimaginatively titled Album, is a tender yet bratty collection of catchy pop psychedelia coupled to a restrained self consciousness that never comes off as posturing or derivative. An apt description might be that their songs sound like Beach Boys hymns filtered through the bombastic noise of My Bloody Valentine and sung with a nasally baritone who summons comparisons to Elvis Costello. This was one of the few contemporary bands that stayed on my radar last year.
Album [sound recording]
There is something about the descending temperature and the vibrancy of Autumn leaves, the unmistakable stench of pumpkin innards, and the knowing that a long Midwestern winter is just around the corner that pushes me toward listening to jazz. Most of my favorite artists and albums generally fall under the broad categories of Be-Bop, Cool and Vocal. I've never been all that drawn to the more esoteric sounds of free or experimentally avante-garde jazz. Some of my favorite musicians include horn players John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Chet Baker, vocal virtuosos Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Horn, arrangers Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, and pianists like Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi. I have to admit that my knowledge of contemporary jazz is quite limited so my recommended Fall listening list below tends to be specific to the 1950's and 60's. Grab that ribbed cardigan, sip on on some hot cider and fall under the melodic color and hypnotic rhythms of some of these great albums.
In the wee small hours
Fusing jazz, classical and blues music together like no one before nor after her, Nina Simone was a one-of-a-kind artist whose artistic achievements and life-long support of civil rights places her firmly within the pantheon of twentieth century greats. Her long-time battle with bipolar disorder, her tumultuous relationship with the music industry and her self-imposed exile are also part of her rich narrative as the “High Priestess of Soul” but it is the plaintive beauty, ferocious spirit, immovable anger, and affirming force of her music that makes Simone so vital. One need only listen to her eulogy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why? The King of Love is Dead to grasp the depth of character her music embodied.
To be free [sound recording] : the Nina Simone story
Andrew Bird’s music is in many ways unremarkable, in the sense that he like so many other musicians working today, crafts quirky, folk-pop with lyrics that strike you as urbane and literary. What differentiates Bird’s sundry brand of high-indie folk within this excessively saturated genre, packed full of overhyped, one-dimensional signer songwriters, stems from his classical music training, specifically his employment of the violin and other non-traditional rock and roll instrumentation (whistling and glockenspiel e.g.). Such an eclectic background provides Bird’s music with so much more compositional depth and textural nuance than his contemporary peers. Sample some of Bird’s material in this video clip at Pitchfork Media. If you’re a fan, Bird is slated to play the Kalamazoo State Theater on October 18th.
Noble beast [sound recording]
Before well known groups like Wilco, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, and a bevy of other artists known for their fusing of folk, rock and country elements rose to popular attention in the late nineties, there was a band from Minnesota called The Jayhawks. Influenced by late sixties folk rock idols like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan, Minneapolis-based The Jayhawks formed in 1985. Led by two primary songwriters, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, The Jayhawks are still considered a bit of a cult band that never achieved the kind of commercial success that the above mentioned musicians have enjoyed. If you enjoy the intersection of rock, roots music and infectious hooks, then check out the Jayhawks’ influential discography. Officially on hiatus, the band known for influencing the sound of Alternative Country continues to perform on occasion as well as working on studio projects.
Watch a clip of their performance on Austin City Limits.
Rainy Day Music
Dead at 26 of an overdose of prescription drugs, British singer songwriter Nick Drake left behind a small yet influential body of acoustic songs layered with subtle pop and jazz sensibilities. Developing a fragile brand of spare and plaintive folk songs during the late 1960’s, Drake’s three albums went almost entirely unnoticed until an automobile commercial reintroduced a new generation to Drake’s quietly evocative songs in 2000. Drake’s music serves as an antecedent to the melancholic musings of contemporary artists like Belle and Sebastian, Devendra Banhart, Elliott Smith, and Iron and Wine. Pink Moon, his most realized album serves as a haunting reminder of what may have been had the young singer survived his bout with depression.
Way to blue [sound recording] : an introduction to Nick Drake
Here is my Best of Summer list of 10 great albums to listen to while the wind runs through your hair and you trek westward to Lake Michigan’s beautiful coast for fun under the sun. What do you like to listen to when the Coppertone goes on thick and your wayfarers solidify your cool?
- Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys
- Summerteeth by Wilco
- Weezer by Weezer
- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement
- Bug by Dinosaur Jr.
- The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips
- Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys
- Once We Were Trees by Beachwood Sparks
- Rubber Soul by The Beatles
- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy
One of the most inpired albums to garner wide spread praise in 2008 was produced by the Seattle-based band Fleet Foxes. Combining soaring vocal harmonies with catchy, folk-pop in the vein of My Morning Jacket and Crosby Stills and Nash, this five-piece group put together one of the most infectious records of the year. These songs will stay with you, echoing throughout your head for hours after you've stopped listening.
Admittedly, I don’t often locate myself in the choral music section of a store. However, after having attended the annual holiday concert hosted by the First Presbyterian Church and performed by WMU’s award-winning University Chorale singers, my appreciation for this deeply calming and ethereal form of music has been greatly expanded. A perfect compliment to emptied, commercial holiday music, take a chance, like I did, and endeavor to explore something new about the variety and wealth of our arts community.
Song for Athene
On a recent trip to the Big Apple, I stumbled upon the two-piece band MGMT via my I-pod while passing the time on the Amtrak. If you are a fan of the Flaming Lips and their infectious way of mashing together psychedelic pop with dance-friendly hooks, then I think you’ll enjoy MGMT and their new album Oracular Spectacular. Give it a listen.
I’ve always thought of Neil Young as the Miles Davis of rock and roll because of his prolific career and the way in which he has embraced different musical styles and genres while inventing a few along the way (not always with the best results). The plaintive lyricism and beauty of his work during the early 1970’s is on display with classic albums “After the Gold Rush”, “Harvest” and “On the Beach”. There’s no better example of Young’s hushed and deeply personal laments during this time period then his “Live at Massey Hall” album from 1971. This album is a lovely soundtrack to the emergence of fall weather and color. Unearth that dusty cardigan, grab a cup of coffee and watch the early morning sun rise from behind the auburn and burnt umber landscape of autumnal Michigan.
Live at Massey Hall 1971 [sound recording]
What distinguishes the Avett Brothers from their alt-folk peers is how seamlessly they weave together various musical genres and traditions without it sounding derisive or lodged within the unforgivable sins of retro-parody. Synthesizing rock, country, folk, and pop together within an economical songwriting framework that neither sounds fixed to the past nor particularly contemporary, situates their beautifully-crafted songs of broken hearts and lost love on the cultural shelves next to other artists (The White Stripes e.g.) who deftly balance both their respect for tradition with their impulse to creatively advance new forms. For beginners, try their album “Emotionalism”.
My first encounter with the American composer Philip Glass was several years ago and honestly, one of shock and awe. Clearly, at the time, I wasn’t ready for his brand of repetitive music structures strung together with an odd assortment of instrumentation and vocal textures. Now several years later, Glass’ eerily minimalist symphonies, hauntingly beautiful film scores (The Hours, Kundun, Fog of War), Eastern inflected rhythms, and evocative ensemble compositions have become some of my favorite classical tracks to listen to.
John Adams is another wonderful composer whose work I’ve recently embraced. His music is often thrown under the heading “minimalism” along with Glass and notable avant-garde musicians Stephen Reich and Terry Reily. Adams’ music, like Glass’ work, tends to generate its melodic color from alterations or subtle tweaking of a foundational harmony. Both deeply expressive and at times jarringly dark, Adams' music has been both widely honored and praised for its humanist themes and boundary-expanding nature.
The Dharma at Big Sur
What goes into the making of a rock and roll masterpiece? Is it the quality of the songwriting or is it the result of a skillful lyricist plumbing the depths of humanity with wordplay, satire, irony, or poetic beauty? Maybe it was the perfect combination of all the various pieces of the band coming together just at the right moment. Could it have been the riffs, the screams, the cow bells, or even the artistic flirtation with expanding the musical envelope?
Classic albums live long after they are completed, resonating within our nostalgia-filled memories of long ago days and past lives. When done right, these classic records often become the soundtrack of a particular time period or evoke images of movements, trends, and other zeitgeist-related minutiae staining the dustbin of history like sonic residue. Continuum Books produces a fun series of album-specific monographs, penned by admirers and hagiographers aptly named Thirty Three and a Third. These pithy little books are pocket-sized and easily accessible for both neophyte and grizzled, music nerd alike.
In the aeroplane over the sea