Staff Picks: Music
I was not terribly impressed with the musical output from 2009, but after compiling my Top Ten CDs from 2010 I discovered a bunch more that were better than most of last year’s list.
Since I could only offer ten selections for the official KPL Top Ten page, I present ten more great CDs from the past twelve months.
11. Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green
12. Body Talk Pts. 1 & 2 by Robyn
13. Adrift by The Red Sea Pedestrians
14. Majesty Shredding by Superchunk
15. Of The Blue Colour of the Sky by OK Go
16. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
17. Transference by Spoon
18. I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
19. Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine by Various
20. Maya by M.I.A.
I have to say that at first listen Plastic Beach went in too many different directions for me. However, by the end I more than appreciated the analogy between the album’s title and its musical landscape. Now, I spend a little time each day soaking up the sounds of this album. Gorillaz had already established itself as an institution where pretty much anything goes, but with Plastic Beach the “band” blends about as many musical styles as it does songs on the album (16 tracks with a running time of just over 56 minutes). Not to say that each track sticks to any kind of formula whatsoever, it absolutely does not in the most refreshing ways. Damon Albarn, the Gorillaz’ driving force, is able to convince the listener to blindly accept the transition within and between each song. You almost wonder if this capacity for persuasion was necessary to convince the eclectic group of artists that make the Plastic Beach what it is. Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Sinfonia Viva, Mark e Smith, and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble all join the regular cast of mysterious cartoon Gorillaz to create an album that will spend a lot of time on my playlist. Take a walk along the Plastic Beach and you will pick something out of the sand that’s worth your while.
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
The other day while listening to online radio at last.fm, I heard the sweet voice of Jazmine Sullivan singing to a funky, rhythmic beat. I was tapping my foot before my brain engaged with what the lyrics actually were: "I bust the windows out your car..." I then had to laugh that a song so fun and upbeat to listen to was about getting even with a cheating boyfriend.
Then, I remembered a song I heard on a country radio station by Carrie Underwood called "Before He Cheats" (on her album Some Hearts). That one is all about knives and ball bats intended to help men stop their cheating ways! So, it seems this topic is universal enough that it spans genres of music from country to rhythm and blues.
(By the way, each of our branch libraries has a different collection of music. I found Sullivan's Fearless CD at our Eastwood Branch. Our online catalog has a special link for searching music selections. Go to the catalog then select "Music Search" on the black navigation bar near the top.)
The recent death of Michael Jackson of a reported heart attack at the age of 50 will undoubtedly cause a storm of crazy stories about his life. Before we are drowning in such tales, I wanted to reflect upon one of the greatest albums of all time, Thriller. No matter how you felt about R&B at the time this album was released, you became a convert to Jackson's ability to bring together that style of music with rock, pop, dance and soul. Jackson was one of the artist who ushered in a new age in music in which artists did not feel confined to a particular style. Others were allowing other types of music to creep into their songs, but the infectious grooves of Thriller blasted through the standard conventions.
I was into roller skating when Thriller was released and I cannot remember a skating session that did not include four to five tracks from the album. Can you honestly say there is a weak song? Even today when most look through their music collection they may have only one R&B record and chances are it is Thriller. Last year I played some tracks for my daughters and they were mesmerized.
What were you doing in your life when Thriller was released? Rest in peace King of Pop and thanks for the music.
Though Seal’s most recent album, Soul, was released late last year, it took months for any of its cuts – all covers of soul standards from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s - to get any substantial radio play. In recent weeks, Seal’s cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ classic slow jam “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has become a fixture on some stations’ airwaves, introducing a new generation of listeners to one of the most heartfelt lover's pleas of understanding ever put into a pop song.
The arrangement on Seal’s version lacks the lush orchestration Gamble and Huff provided the Blue Notes on their 1972 version, but the more stripped-down arrangement (reminiscent of a previous hit revival of the tune in 1989 by Simply Red) still captures the romantic essence carved into the groove of original hit. While not as intense as Blue Notes lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ aching reading of the song, Seal’s unmistakeable vocal does the song justice, his soaring lead cushioned by the accompanying vocalists’ hushed, close-harmony refrains.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs contained on Soul should find the collection to be a decent soul primer. Seal and his production team do a fine job with the interpretations, which are all generally faithful to the original arrangements, though none of them are a patch on the originals – when you’re covering the likes of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, it must be understood it’s no contest. Still, with such an impeccable song selection, voiced by such a charismatic performer as Seal, Soul is a collection worth hearing beyond its breakout hit - especially if it leads listeners to the original sources.
When Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It first burst through our stereo speakers, my wife thought I’d accidentally put in one of my ‘60’s Motown collections. Not so, but Saadiq’s production style on this, his fourth solo LP, so faithfully recreates the sounds of mid-to-late ‘60’s Northern Soul that it’s easy to believe it’s a lost masterpiece from the vaults of Brunswick or Philly Groove.
It’s not just the production that echoes the best vintage soul – it’s the groove-inducing songs, all straight from the pen of Saadiq himself (only a handful being co-writes). While a flourish or two may be lifted wholesale from an R’n’B classic (the chromatic string ascensions and descensions of "Just One Kiss" - a duet with Joss Stone - come straight from the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”), no tunes sound like blatant steals. Influences are deftly blended, so that a song like “Keep Marchin’” brings to mind the vocal stylings of the Impressions, singing socially conscious lyrics a la Curtis Mayfield, backed by the Funk Brothers as produced by Smokey Robinson.
The former lead singer of New Jack Swing legends Tony! Toni! Toné! hasn’t totally escaped the modern world – a bonus track remix of “Oh Girl” (not the Chi-Lites smash) features Jay-Z, and there’s a polish on the recording that doesn’t scream retro the way Daptone’s gut-bucket productions do. As yesterday as they sound, in mining older styles, Saadiq reintroduces his audience to sounds no longer so ubiquitous on the radio as in their heyday, which makes them fresh again. For those who never knew what all the fuss was about, The Way I See It may even sound like the future of soul. As long as Saadiq keeps making records, that future can last as long as it wants.
The Way I See It
Every year Young Adult author, David Levithan (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) asks his friends to list their favorite music (CDs and songs) of the previous year. I truly enjoy the list because someone always mentions something I missed. The winner in 2008 was the debut by Vampire Weekend. The Top Ten also included Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, and Portishead. Since it is the 10th Anniversary of the "David Music Poll" he asked each of us to also list our Top Ten in the past ten years. Check out all the selections at the David Music Poll Blog. Scroll to the bottom to find my selections.
In 1961 - the year President Obama was born - Etta James scored a huge crossover hit with “At Last”, a ballad that had been written in the 1940’s for the film Orchestra Wives, and had been covered by numerous crooners before “Peaches” made her version the definitive reading.
James’ hit version was recorded for Chess, the legendary record label headquartered in the city in which Barack Obama would later begin his political career. The Chess story was dramatized (and fictionalized) for the 2008 film Cadillac Records. In one scene, Etta James - played by Beyoncé Knowles - wows the Chess staff with her rendition of the song that would send her star soaring.
During Obama's first inaugural ball, Beyoncé encored her spot-on cover of this romantic classic as our new president and First Lady Michelle danced in celebration. It didn't matter that the musical moment was taking place in Washington, D.C. - it was Chicago casting its spell over all those taking part in the moment.
Regardless of her troubled lifestyle Amy Winehouse has an amazing voice. Her voice has power and strength with a bluesy, jazzy quality that comes unexpectedly from her smallish frame. When I hear her sing songs from Back to Black or Frank I relate her personal trials with Billie Holiday's and hope she won’t continue to say no to Rehab. I hope instead she will go.
Back to Black