Saturday, January 17, 2015

Album Review: Uptown Special by Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson's ever star-studded albums just got a new little brother in the form of Uptown Special, an album which has already seen a great deal more success here in the states than anything Ronson has performed on in the past. "Uptown Funk" became Ronson's first American #1 as a performer last week (previously he was one of the producers on Bruno Mars' #1 "Locked Out of Heaven").

Uptown Special kicks off with an introduction piece, the short "Uptown's First Finale," which features not only Stevie Wonder himself, but the classic Stevie Wonder sound circa the early 70s. "Uptown's First Finale" gives way to "Summer Breaking." The lyrics (as with many songs on the album) are by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Chabon. As terrific as the collaboration is on "Summer Breaking," which paints a fantastic picture of a heart-hardened girl and her summer exploits, one has to wonder if this will become a recurring partnership between Chabon and Ronson, much like the one between Ben Folds and author Nick Hornby.

"Feel Right," of course, is completely different from the soft, floating sound of the first two tracks. The seventies sound is still present, but the drums and wind instruments bring to mind Version more than Record Collection. Mystikal provides an aggressive yet playful rap on this track for which Bruno Mars is credited as one of the many writers.

Of course, what can be said about "Uptown Funk" that hasn't already been covered?

The feminine voice on the album, "I Can't Lose" features the vocals of brand new artist Keyonne Starr, whose voice is completely on par with the rest of the seasoned musical veterans. It's a shame to see so many fewer women working on this album, since Ronson's work generally features women much more heavily.

One of the standout tracks is "Daffodils," which features vocals by Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. The mesh of funk and psychedelia with poetic lyrics makes the piece a dreamy dance tune. Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow comes to the forefront for "Crack in the Pearl," which also offers a lyrical reprise of "Uptown's First Finale."

"In Case of Fire" is a smooth, falsetto-laden track with vocals by Jeff Bhasker. Chabon's lyrics give the song an incredible flow that may have been missing on the tracks of Record Collection.

"Leaving Los Feliz" is the Beatles-esque track on the album. The first eleven seconds bring to mind Paul McCartney's "We All Stand Together," while the rest of the song, including Parker's vocals and the echo production seems to channel the solo work of John Lennon. Los Feliz is the so-called hipster area of Los Angeles, and the track is about a hipster who realizes he may be getting too old to continue partying in Los Feliz. It's definitely a track that's worth a listen.

And of course, the album is bookended with "Crack in the Pearl, Pt II," another song on which Stevie Wonder guests, reprising the Wonder sound and "Las Vegas" lyrics.

The entirety of Uptown Special has a seventies throwback sound. Inclusions of things like the harmonica and Stevie Wonder vocals merely cement the core sound, which, oddly, isn't disturbed by the album's sole rap track, "Feel Right," which sounds as though it's rapped over a James Brown song. As with any Ronson work, there are many styles of music represented, yet much like Record Collection, no song is the lonely kid standing in the corner. Somehow, all of the styles come together in a cohesive manner, not only because of the central sound style, but because they have a flow that only a good DJ like Ronson could provide for an album with so many varying tempos and styles. As wonderful as Record Collection was, Uptown Special does not disappoint. In fact, there are fewer "weak" tracks on Uptown Special, making it quite an exciting album.

Mark Ronson is a producer and DJ.

Uptown Special can be purchased here.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Top 14: Singles of 2014

2014 was more about singles than albums. Much as it makes me cringe to think about, it's entirely true. That's not to say there weren't any good albums, but there was nothing that measured up to the top 10 albums of 2013.

So, the year was about singles. In addition to that though, it was about women. Women dominated the charts and the airwaves. We're talking Taylor Swift being the first woman to knock her own #1 single to #2 so she could occupy the two positions simultaneously. We're talking about the sheer variety of female acts topping charts, from the aforementioned Swift to Meghan TrainorAriana GrandeNicki Minaj, Iggy AzaleaSelena Gomez, Tove Lo, and Jessie J, just to name a few! Chrissie Hynde released her first official solo album, Lily Allen and Ingrid Michaelson each put out new albums, and, once again, Taylor Swift broke tons of records with 1989.

While I'm a little sad that there weren't more standout albums, I wasn't entirely displeased with some of the singles. And also, girl power. Anyway, below are fourteen of my favorite singles of 2014.

14. "Earth is the Loneliest Planet" by Morrissey
It was nice of Morrissey to release this track as a single on my birthday. It's also pretty cool to see that he's still got that Morrissey musical sadness. This might even be the best track he's done since the mid-nineties (in my opinion).

13. "Where No Eagles Fly" by Julian Casablancas + the Voidz
From Tyranny comes this gem of a track. The rest of the album was impressive as well, particularly the overall production. I love how perfect all of the visuals are for this Julian Casablancas + the Voidz project, from the videos to this exaggerated retro single cover. If you missed it, you should really check it out.

12. "Foil" by "Weird Al" Yankovic
"Weird Al" Yankovic had his first #1 album with Mandatory Fun this year, and it's no surprise that the album did so well (although it is a surprise that none before have). The original songs and parodies are all spot-on, and even this parody of "Royals," which begins like a run-of-the-mill Weird Al food song, but takes a darker and funnier turn.

11. "I Won't Let You Down" by OK Go
The band that's known for their videos makes some awesome music too. That said, the video for this one is a Busby Berkeley musical number on Honda personal mobility units. I love the inventive way they're always coming up with new things for videos and not just recycling the treadmill gimmick over and over. I also love the touches of the 70s, which remind me of "I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5.

10. "Air Balloon" by Lily Allen
Lily Allen's Sheezus was a lot more hip-hop influenced than I had expected (the title failed to clue me in), but at the same time, the album had a great deal of variety. Take this worldbeat-infused pop tune for example. It's been compared to "Paper Planes" by M.I.A., and you can hear the similarities, but it's also got its own thing going on in an infectious earworm way.
9. "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor
While I can't help but agree with opponents of this song, that it isn't as much about body positivity as it seems on the surface, "All About That Bass" is still a winner in my book. Originally offered to BeyoncĂ©, this track became a viral hit for young Meghan Trainor (who is 21). The bold use of colors in the marketing of this song and "Lips Are Moving" (also a hit) give her singles a uniform look, along with the fact that "Lips" references the previous single, saying "tell me that you're not just about this bass." Trainor is a singer-songwriter, and has written singles for several other acts, so she should have no trouble writing for herself.

8. "Be Reasonable, Diane" by SPEAK
You don't need a gimmick to sell a song, but I won't deny that it helps. SPEAK released a game to go along with "Be Reasonable, Diane." I'm sure it's not the first time it's been done, but it definitely works. Meanwhile, I'm perplexed by the recent surge in the name "Diane" in songs. I only know one Diane, and she's my aunt, yet Vampire Weekend also released "Diane Young" (a pun, I know) last year.
7. "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift
The biggest album by a female artist since Carole King's Tapestry, 1989 has been shattering records like no one's business. But this one is more than just a record-breaker in my opinion. "Blank Space" is a playful and mature look at both Taylor Swift's heartbreaks and the way the press treats them. She takes the blame herself as in "I Knew You Were Trouble," but also professes the "we all hurt each other" sentiment as in Ingrid Michaelson's "Girls Chase Boys," and the whole thing has that sort of fairytale feel of her earlier songs ("Love Story"). I just wish the producers had gone for a cleaner sound right before "and I'll write your name."

6. "Tell the World" by Eric Hutchinson
Constantly teetering on the edge of the mainstream, Eric Hutchinson released Pure Fiction this year and, while the tracks weren't as strong as some of his previous ones, songs like this one really stood out. The first single off of Pure Fiction was this feel-good tune, empowering in both sound and lyric.

5. "Girls Chase Boys" by Ingrid Michaelson
Ingrid Michaelson's most successful single since "The Way I Am," "Girls Chase Boys" is both a breakup song and a statement that "no matter who or how we love, we are all the same." She tackled gender inequality and the universal nature of heartbreak in the video for this catchy tune. It serves as both a tribute to Robert Palmer and a fun political statement.

4. "All I Need Is You" by Rob Cantor
Rob Cantor may not have broken the internet, but he sure used some fun new techniques to sell the great songs on Not a Trampoline. With his viral video of celebrity impressions set to "Perfect," and this video made up of gifs, he's like the OK Go of internet memes. And the song is pretty great too!

3. "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
While I'm disappointed that it's not another Mark Ronson and the Business International record, I certainly can't complain about the quality of this #2 hit. Watch out Taylor Swift, this fast-rising funk and soul track might just de-throne you.
2. "Swimming Pool Blues" by Miniature Tigers
Another great summer-soundtrack tune from Miniature Tigers. The rest of Cruel Runnings is sparse competition for "Swimming Pool Blues," which was definitely one of my favorite songs released all year. I even love the cheesy "underwater" sound editing bridge.

1. "Dark Sunglasses" by Chrissie Hynde
If there's one track I played on repeat this year, it was this one from Chrissie Hynde's very first solo album. I know, it's a fine line, "Chrissie Hynde solo album vs. any other album she's worked on," but man, did this single get it right. You can sing along with the backing vocals, and that cowbell...Totally my favorite track this year.