Friday, December 20, 2013

Favorite music of 2013.

This is the music I most loved over the past year.  I doubt too many of these have made any other end-of-year lists: 

Tegan and Sara (CAN): Heartthrob.
This list in not in any order, but Heartthrob might be my most favorite album of the year.  I was stunned at how these two former folk-rock sisters were able to complete an entire album of big pop songs that were breathtakingly moving, musically literate, and full of crowd pleasing hooks:

My Bloody Valentine (GBR): m b v.
m b v proved to be neither greater nor lesser than their legendary 1993 album, Loveless, but it is a brilliant new stage in their career after a 20 year pause.  It stands on its own as a masterpiece of scorched beauty.

Sleigh Bells (USA): Bitter Rivals
Their sound has smoothed out since their first album, and they may have lost some of their unpredictable edge, but I think their songwriting is becoming more solid:

Whinnie Williams (GBR)
I'm so impressed and inspired by how Jade Williams executed her vision of an almost hermetically tight world of style, sensitivity and dry humor. Can't wait for the album: 

Little Boots (GBR): Nocturnes
Victoria evokes club, house, and disco without ever raising a bead of sweat. Perfect and pure, smooth as glass:

Annie (NOR): The A&R EP.
Annie has an infallible sense of what pop should be.  Her infrequent releases only appear when she has crafted a work of perfection: 

Oh Land (DNK): Wishbone
Oh Land's debut was technically impressive. On Wishbone, she brings a little more grit and funkiness into her sound: 

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (JPN): Nanda Collection
Kyary released her third album of frenetic insanity and hysterical beauty this year:

If appreciating Kyary requires a little more background, this little video might help novices:

Cults (USA): Static
I really liked their first album, but I loved Static. They extend what they were already doing while bringing in some more contemporary influences, without losing their charm.

Selebrities (USA): I was convinced this band was from Europe until I found out they're originally from Florida, which is just - weird!  They lovingly emulate the whole post-punk, Factory Records era, but still sound fresh.

Cate Le Bon (GBR): Here's someone I can't quite figure out, but this girl from Wales has my attention. Kind of folk/pop/rock with an eccentric sense of melody and rhythm; a bit reminiscent of the softer side of Broadcast.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mott the Hoople. All the Young Dudes (1972).

When I went to college in 1974, there was a guy down the hall in my dorm who constantly played this record, and it became quite annoying.  Almost 40 years later, I have to admit it's one of the greatest rock songs ever.

Mott the Hoople were successful as a performing band at the time, but after releasing a few singles, all of which flopped, they were in danger of getting dropped by their label and calling it quits.  David Bowie learned of their desperate need for airplay and decided to write them a hit.  "All The Young Dudes" reached #3 on the UK charts and the top 40 in the US, and it basically made Mott contenders.  Now, it may be the only song that people even remember by the Hooples.

As is typical for a Bowie song, the lyrics sound great when sung, especially by Ian Hunter, who made the song his own, but when read on paper, they're inexplicable at times.  A depiction of disaffected youth emerges, punctuated by nonsense phrases and non sequiturs ("funky little boat race," OK, what??).  But that's not a complaint, I love Bowie's lyrics, and the way he mixes the straight forward with the inscrutable. 

"All The Young Dudes" became an anthem, "the" anthem, in fact, for Glam rock, although Bowie, enigmatic as always, said its subject was the impending apocalypse.  In fact, just this past week, I noted on Amazon, a 5 disc box set on the history of Glam rock released this month, called Oh Yes We Can Love, which is, of course, taken from a line in "Dudes:"

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Clientele. Reflections After Jane (1999).

This sounds like it was recorded on cassette tape in a closet (and maybe it was).  But it will haunt you to the core of your broken heart.  The lo-fi, boxy ambiance actually lends it an added appeal.  No one talks much about The Clientele, well, almost no one.  But they have their devoted fans, and they're on Merge, so they're probably well taken care of.  I hope so, because they are a treasure.

It's not always a world of muted, hazy nostalgia for the Clientele, here they almost look like rock stars.  Almost:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. PonPonPon (2011).

I found this video on Laura Bettinson's Tumblr.  Laura is a member of Ulraista, and her Tumblr is an overstuffed closet of the outré.  Although new to me, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's "PonPonPon" has racked up over 54 million views during the past couple of years:

Kyary is not some obscure oddball, she is on a major label in Asia (Warner), and her first full length album, Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, debuted at No. 1 in Japan.  The song is great, but the video left me speechless, it's an intense work of art. Kyary's effortless embrace of the outlandish makes Lady Gaga look like your grandma doing the Macarena.  The video is filled with the signs and symbols that remind me of the work of Japanese artists such as Takashi Murakami: the otaku fetishes, kawaiisa pushed to a severe extreme, the stylized artifice, the unsettling childishness, and overall surrealism.  Andre Breton would have immediately bestowed his imprimatur on Kyary. I immediately bought her album, Moshi Moshi Harajuku, which did not disappoint.  My 10 yr. old daughter loves it too!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Taylor, Tegan & Sara (8/20/2013).

So, this is pretty special, n'es-ce pas?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Doors. Waiting for the Sun. (1968).

I was very moved to hear of Ray Manzarek’s passing in May, and I was inspired to listen again to my favorite Doors album, Waiting for the Sun.  I hadn’t heard it in about 40 years, and time had made the listening fresher.  

Two things struck me this time.  One, Morrison was not a very good singer, unless it was a kind of dramatic performance, as in "Not To Touch the Earth," "The Unknown Soldier," or "Five To One," on all of which he excelled.  He was a master of the whisper-to-a-scream thing, building up tension and releasing it in eruptions.  There are some beautiful songs, written by Robby Krieger, such as "Wintertime Love", and "Yes the River Knows," where Morrison’s performance is monotonous and glum, as if it were simply a guide track that was supposed to be redone but never was.  In the documentary When You’re Strange, Morrison’s father maintains his opinion that his son was not a good singer, but admits that he must have been a charismatic performer.  When I was 12, I thought Morrison was a fantastic singer.  Forty-five years later, I have to agree with the admiral.

The other thing that struck me was the imaginativeness of the arrangements.  The band put so much creative energy into their parts, very few barre or block chords here.  Instead, Ray and Robby wrote parts for themselves that enhance these tunes with vivid color, subtlety, and impressive musicianship. Robby played with a brilliant display of guitaristic styles: some jazzy phrasing, flamenco, fuzzed-out leads, and luscious slide work.  Ray composed incredible material for organ, piano, and lots of harpsichord.  Manzarek’s contributions on this album seem to be the most sophisticated of any that he made to a Doors record.  This time around, I noticed that Ray quotes Monk's "Straight No Chaser" during a pause in "We Could Be So Good Together."  I wonder how many kids identified that reference at the time, I certainly didn't.  It’s a shame that the most interesting music on this record was probably only created for this album, and was unlikely to have been performed live.  Densmore's drumming, as usual, was nothing less than brilliant. 

"Hello I Love You" may sound a little dated now, but "The Unknown Soldier" stands up today as fascinating piece of work, spooky and still powerful.  There was really nothing ever quite like it, by them or anyone else.

My two favorite Doors albums are Strange Days (1967) and Waiting for the Sun.  I consider these to be part of their “gothic paisley” period.  They are eerie, dark, and mysterious, but not untouched by psychedelic flourishes common to those years. After the overly ambitious Soft Parade album (1969), they declared a return to their roots as a blues band with Morrison Hotel (1969).  This always puzzled me, because here’s a band with a jazz drummer, a flamenco guitarist, and two arty film students. I was suspicious of their claim to the lineage of Muddy Waters.  And I found it unsettling that these famous, affluent, rock stars were posing on the album with Skid Row derelicts who wouldn't know Jim Morrison from Jim Henson. The slumming effect was off-putting:

Then LA Woman (1971).  If Jim hadn’t passed they certainly would have continued to record, but the final track, "Riders On the Storm," really sounds like a farewell.  Despite having one of Morrison’s classic clunkers (“his brain is squirming like a toad”), the band’s performance is mesmerizing.  As those last delicate phrases on the Rhodes beautifully fade away, it sounds like a spirit being released from the world.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Twiggy. 1967.

The incomparable Twiggy, filmed in Paris, 1967, accompanied by a Rolling Stones song from way back when they still mattered (to me, anyway). Twiggy’s fresh clarity and brilliance shines even in black and white:


It would be decades before another model reached the same iconoclastic level, and that would be Kate:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Taylor Swift. Red (2012).

I don’t usually review music this mainstream but I’ve really been enjoying Red, listening to it over and over.  

Taylor Swift has sounded a lot better since she straightened her hair.  She’s getting a lot of flak for using her ex boyfriends as song material.  Since when was that considered poor taste? Someone forgot to tell Leonard Cohen, Carly Simon, and a billion other singer songwriters over the last 50 years.  Oh, heck, let’s go back to the Middle Ages and let those troubadours know they crossed the line of accepted decorum.

As I listen to Red the fifth or sixth time, I keep going back to the little CD booklet to check, did TS write this one?  And this one too?  By herself?  Damn, she’s good.  In fact the best songs on Red are the ones she wrote all by her lonesome.  If I could make any criticism, the album is a bit too long.  It could have been improved by dropping the collaborations with Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol, and Ed Sheeran.  Those two tracks seem labored and unnecessary.  They stall the pace of the album.  I have no idea why they’re even there.

Going through Red from beginning to end feels very much like a series of memorable scenes from unmade movies.  There is a hint of a story, and some parts are out of sequence, but it adds up to a kind of accumulated experience.  Red is all about how the emotional impressions made during early relationships have a significance and vividness that seem life-transforming. And Taylor makes those  observations with a razored sharpness.  That kind of stuff pales as you get older, but Red brings me back to what it was like when I was her age.  

Taylor, you did good, don’t let the bastards get you down.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Annie. Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts (2013).

I was just thinking the other day, whatever happened to Annie, my favorite Norwegian poplette?  It's been eons since she's released anything new. And suddenly this appeared on Popjustice:

So, Annie’s back with a great new song, but the video has issues, and I don’t mean just her lipstick - mon Dieu!  Incidentally, there’s talk of Little Boots working recently with Annie.  Now that’s a partnership I never anticipated!  Only something completely fab could come out of that collabo. Psyched.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tegan and Sara. Heartthrob (2013).

Tegan and Sara have been moving past their wordy, strummy, funky folk-rock for some time now.  Sainthood (2009) was an amazing rock record.  Still, did anyone expect this?  With Heartthrob, T&S aimed to make big synthpop radio hits.  They don’t just make their mark, they clobber it.  Each song is full of huge hooks, monster choruses, and catchy tunes.  Every track is a crowd pleasing barn burner.  And they have perfected the art of the pop lyric.  The lyrics are constructed from brief, conversational phrases or sharply described images that make sense the first time around, no need to read the lyric sheet to try and figure out what’s happening.

The same day I heard this album, and fell in love with it, I saw that T&S were playing near my home town the next night.  I felt this was some kind of sign, so I made the 35 min. drive to see them and they did not disappoint, they totally killed it. They love their audience, calling them the “nicest fans.” Those fans threw articles of clothing at Tegan (a scarf, and a bra).  Tegan picked up the bra and said thanks but, “I really have no use for this.”  Sara talked amusingly about breaking a string, saying, “Whenever I break a string I always wonder what Slash would do.  Probably roll around on the floor in his leather pants, no shirt, and a boa constrictor around his neck.”

One of the great things about Heartthrob is that everything holds together beautifully as an album. It’s not just a collection of new songs.  These tunes sound like the pages of a book that were meant to be read in order.  Heartthrob has a consistent sound, big shiny synths, slamming drums, and strong melodies.  Any of the ten tracks would make a terrific single.  T&S are opening for fun. on a big arena tour this summer.  What?  They should totally be headlining.  In the current issue of Billboard (5/4/13), they have the #1 spot on the Dance Club Songs chart, with Closer:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Onward Chariots. My Confession (2013).

I came across Onward Chariots on the Indipop list. This rocking little unit has a new full length album out, This Is My Confession, after having previously released singles on famed labels February Records, Elefant, and Dufflecoat.   On their new record, they have executed an ambitious and successful 16 track indie pop concept album.  As unlikely as that sounds, it works beautifully as a whole story, and the songs are quite nice individually as well, although it strays a bit, stylistically speaking. The standouts for me are Forever Never Ends, and Stay.  

Onward Chariots have played all over the east coast, but have also made appearances in Europe and the UK.  They have a video for one of their new tracks, Mel Gibson, which is rather hilarious:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The King of Luxembourg. Valleri (1988).

Video of a Monkees cover by cult artist, The King of Luxembourg, recorded on cult label él, from the 1988 album, Royal Bastard, posted by cult pop duo, Bad Dream Fancy Dress, as a tribute to cult actress Valerie Leon.  Mind-bending camp.  There’s enough cult action here to get you bombed by the FBI.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Deee-Lite. Groove Is In The Heart (1990).

In the early 1990’s you were probably listening to Shoegaze  (like me), Grunge, or something like this:

When this came out I thought it was pure junk.  Twenty-three years later I think it’s pure genius.   What’s happened to me!??  It’s ridiculous kitsch, but totally fabulous.  I’m nostalgic for music I didn’t even listen to at the time, like Lisa Stansfield.  I just bought Affection, which came out in 1989, but it sounds close that era, and I’m loving it.  I bought all of Deee-Lite’s albums last week and I’m finding their music was not only fun, but also surprisingly deep, and ahead of it’s time.  New York Magazine just ran a story on how 1993 was the year that changed the world, so maybe it’s just something I’m picking up unconsciously from the ether.

Miss Lady Kier wore a Pucci catsuit in the above video, so when Emilio Pucci  won the CFDA  lifetime achievement award in 1991, she was asked to honor him at the tribute with a song and video.  She came up with this, which is a special treat:

Here’s a little documentary about the band just before they hit the big time (they’re so cute and nervous!):

More 90’s nostalgia (seems like just yesterday).  Remember Mary, the librarian?  This movie was quite naturally a huge deal among my library colleagues:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The High Llamas. Bach Ze.

The High Llamas is one of the few, maybe one of the only bands I can think of whose sole raison d’etre seems to be the creation of ineffable moments of mysterious beauty.  This track, Bach Ze, from Snowbug (1999) is, for me, essential.