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Staff Picks: Music

Best Music of 2014

Catch up on the best music made in 2014 by checking out some of these end of year lists.

NPR's Music Critics

Pitchfork

Rolling Stone

Country Music

AV Club

Metacritic's Debut Albums

Hip Hop Albums


The Voice of Christmas

Bing Crosby's famous rendition of White Christmas may well be the most beloved and well known holiday song. It's a song that every December becomes an ubiquitous element of everyday life, almost inescapable as it leaks into existence from mall speakers, headphones and television sets. A new biographical portrait of Crosby's personal and professional life as well as his pop cultural significance will be featured on the PBS television program American Masters this Tuesday (December 2nd). Interested in more than just his holiday songs, check out more here.


TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio is a difficult band to describe given how their sonic palette draws from multiple sources including, post-punk, soul, doo wop, and electronic music. The band's strength is in synthesizing these stylistic threads into cohesive and accessible songs that can both rock out and register emotionally. The new album is called Seeds but definitely check out some of the Brooklyn group's older material as well.


Slow Club

The new British male/female duo Slow Club effectively weave together expressive crooning with catchy melodies and dance-friendly grooves with their third album Complete Surrender. From beautiful ballads to romping Motown-rooted soul, fans of bands like Beach House, Wye Oak, The Supremes, Low, Amy Winehouse, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will find something to like in this album.


Christmas… and All That Jazz

Winter is here in all its glory and with the holiday season (and, of course, Record Store Day) right around the corner, it’s time for another Bargain Basement adventure. This time there are two worth bragging about… well, ok, maybe more like five or six but who’s counting?

First, if you’re in the mood for some new jazz (and who’s not?), Friends Bookstore has a whole cart full of new acquisitions. Seriously. A whole cart full. Ok, even I’ll admit that there’s some pretty obscure stuff in there, but for a couple of bucks each, you definitely can’t go wrong. I made out like a bandit with three killer titles by local (but nationally famed) jazzman, Tom Knific; Siena, Lines of Influence, and Home Bass. Siena features a full cast of heavies, including pianist Fred Hersch and one of my longtime favorite guitar artists, John Abercrombie. Impressive stuff, indeed. Lines is a quartet record with pianist John Knific, drummer extraordinaire Keith Hall, and tasty sax work by Chris Geckstrom. Lastly, Tom’s “Duos and Trios” release, Home Bass, boasts an equally impressive cast, with Billy Hart, drums; Trent Kynaston, sax; and others. All are wonderful recordings and terrific finds.

And… just in time for the holidays, Friends have so cleverly set up a cart chock full of holiday music and seasonal videos. Sinatra and Bing and all the classics are there, of course, but as I’ve confessed here before, I tend to seek out the more unusual when it comes to musical holiday fare. (There’s even a new film about this strange obsession due to arrive in December. There’s a trailer below - thanks for the tip, Karl!) So, in between the Mannheim Steamrollers and the Gregorian chanters, along comes this cool collection called Maybe This Christmas Too? with Dave Matthews, Barenaked Ladies, Oh Susanna, and the Flaming Lips. Nice! I also grabbed a lovely disc from Utah with some wonderful guitar and violin works by Michael Lucarelli and Kelly Parkinson. And to top it off, I managed to secure a swingin’ copy of Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas. Priceless. 


Bargains in the Basement is an occasional series highlighting noteworthy items unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to help support the library. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!

 


The Power of Mahler

There’s a wonderful scene in the early part of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 film Hail Mary, where a young girl whirls around her living room, performing a kind of modern dance to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 (the Adagio portion). The scene reminded me of how much I enjoy this particular work of the Bohemian (then part of the Austrian Empire) composer as well as his masterful Symphony No. 5. Mahler’s works are impressively evocative and possess an intensity of emotion like few others of his era. His innovative contributions and forward thinking approach to his symphonies represent a transitory bridge from 19th Century Romantic music to that of the Modernist period and its emphasis upon atonality.


Pink Mountaintops

Those who loved the muddy, grungy, heavy sounds of 90’s alternative music will recognize in the Pink Mountaintops, a certain backward looking approach to their referencing of the era's loud and fuzzy heroes like Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. Throw in some touches of Neu, Bruce Springsteen and a smattering of New Wave synthesizers and you just about have the makings of a throwback album. There’s a few really catchy tunes on this long player, including Through All the Worry, which features J. Mascis on guitar. Give it a shot.


FKA twigs - Lets Hear It for the Girl

Give it a decade-- “where you were you the first time you heard LP1?” will be a standard question for music enthusiasts everywhere. Singer-producer FKA twigs’ first studio release is not just a well-executed debut; in the vein of Black Star who released one sole record (Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star), this is an instant classic that leaves you craving a follow-up.

LP1 stands in stark relief to electronic contemporaries because it emits a haunting, raw energy that is also crisply edited. FKA twigs (26-year-old Brit Tahliah Barnett) pairs her own vocal and production talents with those of industry innovators like Sampha and Dev Hynes to deliver synth-heavy tones that range from dissonant ("Pendulum") to lush ("Kicks"). The first track, "Preface," opens with FKA twigs singing hymnal notes, quickly chased by a simple drum beat, followed by an unintelligible man's voice. Though the pace rarely moves beyond a nonchalant head nod, the album is not lethargic. The first single, “Two Weeks,” is barely mid-tempo but achieves a hypnotic, hair-raising feel. A few tracks veer towards ‘90s R&B production, yet never sound dated. "Give Up" could be a dark follow-up track to Janet Jackson's “Velvet Rope.” FKA twigs neatly contorts her controlled soprano to fit LP1’s sonic range. She never belts, but when paired with gauzy tones and deep bass her voice takes on an ethereal quality. Those vocals are essential to the album’s central theme: tension.

LP1 communicates tension primarily by placing the familiar in unfamiliar spaces, sonically and lyrically. "Closer" sounds like a hymn you might hear at Mass if not for the steady 808s and chirping synthesizer. While “Numbers” is a frustrated missive to a transient former lover, "Two Weeks" confidently declares the singer’s erotic power. These contrasting elements feel like an intentional rejoinder in a music landscape that demands definition. More than just sharing FKA twigs’ distinctive vision, LP1 expresses a multidimensionality inscribed with self-love, doubt, narcissism, insignificance, and invincibility: all emotions rarely discussed in public. Now, check out the album and mark the date on your calendar—it will come in handy.


I like to mix it up!

I’m not a fan of the Sex and the City series or even the movies, but I have really enjoyed their soundtrack. What I have found with soundtracks is that you get a variety of music and since my taste in music is all over the place, I usually find something I like. This soundtrack stars Alicia Keys, Dido, Cee Lo Green, Ricki-Lee and Erykah Badu. Even Liza Minelli has a couple of cuts on this CD. It’s the same ole Liza, except, even though it may be hard to imagine it, her voice is even raspier.

Sex and the City 2 is a collection of eclectic vibes which turned me on to Natacha Atlas. She is a Middle Eastern singer who has a striking song called Kidda on Sex and the City 2. I was always singing along in my head, which is pretty difficult since I have no idea what she’s saying, but it led me to look her and other Arabic music up. KPL has one of Natacha’s CDs titled Mounqaliba in their collection. On Mounqaliba she has a rendition of Nick Drake’s Riverman that I really enjoy. It’s kind of jazzy or maybe bluesy. Well, anyway….KPL also has a CD called The rough guide to Arabic Lounge, which is a mix of Arab music that includes something from Natacha. If you like to try different kinds of music give Sex and the City 2 a shot. If nothing else maybe you’ll like the men’s choir that’s singing in it.


Ty Segall

There’s a lot of music on the newest Ty Segall album Manipulator (17 songs). With that many songs, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that a handful are great, a few are throwaway’s and the rest are well…somewhere closer to meh. Segall keeps his grungy brand of garage rock truckin’ along the lines of his previous albums, mixing together pop melodies with surf-psych and Stoogesesque rock anthems. Quality control aside, Segall's albums always possess just enough hooks to get you to the next album; one that is usually only a few months away.





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