Sunday, May 30, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2019


I can't believe it folks, we're almost there. This is the most I've committed to a project in a very long time.

I already know with 100% certainty what the album of the year for 2019 is. I'll still talk about the runner-up though, because it's not their fault that a perfect album was released the same year.

Vampire Weekend released another piece of absolute art in 2019, after a six-year break and the departure of Rostam Batmanglij. Father of the Bride sees the band exploring more musical styles than usual, and yet for the first time blending lyrical ideas into a somewhat cohesive story. 

Father of the Bride begins with "Hold You Now," which features Danielle Haim (of Haim) and contains the album title. "Hold You Now" is the first Vampire Weekend song to be sung as a duet and to feature a female voice. Koenig wanted to create a duet in which the two singers have opposing viewpoints. The chorus is sampled from the film The Thin Red Line, meaning Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer receives writing credit. Said chorus is sung by the Choir of All Saints from Honiara. The language used it Solomon Pidjin, the native language of the South Pacific Solomon Islands. It roughly translates to: "God, take my life and let it be//Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;//Take my hands and let them move//At the impulse of Thy love." 

My favorite song on the album by far is "Harmony Hall." I felt the song was somehow able to perfectly express my emotions in the year I finally decided to seek medication and help managing my mental illnesses. Of course, there is a great deal more to the song than what my initial listens garnered. The primary refrain of the song "I don't wanna live like this//but I don't wanna die" is a carry-over from  "Finger Back" of Modern Vampires of the City, much as the line "It feels so unnatural//Peter Gabriel too" was a repeated line in their early work. To me, that line expressed a great deal about mental illness. The song itself is in part about feelings changing over time, which may be why I connected to it as someone with bipolar disorder who is all too familiar with feelings changing. Other themes in the song are guilt and anger. In the wake of George Floyd's murder and the BLM protests in 2020, the band Switchfoot went ahead with their release of a cover of "Harmony Hall," explaining a bit more about the song itself in the process. Many have interpreted the title to be a reference to a dormitory at Vampire Weekend's alma mater, Columbia University, but Koenig has disputed this and as Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman explains in the footnotes to their cover video, "'Harmony Hall' takes inspiration from former slave plantations named Harmony Hall. For me, this is a song that acknowledges that if we are to change our future, we need to first confess our past." "Harmony Hall" has been Vampire Weekend's highest-charting single to date.

"This Life" is cowritten with iLoveMakonnen and Mark Ronson. It covers the theme of love not being as it was expected. A line from iLoveMakonnen's song "Tonight" is interpolated for the chorus, which is about a situation in which the couple have wronged one another equally and have the option to move on or move out. There is also a direct reference to Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains in Southern California," another track about subverted expectations. "Big Blue" features slide guitar reminiscent of George Harrison while the electronic backing track has been compared to Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. "How Long?" interpolates Vampire Weekend's own "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" and the chorus melody of Lily Allen's "My One" (which Ezra Koenig worked on with Mark Ronson the previous year). "2021" is built around a sample of an ambient track entitled "Talking" by Haruomi Hosono. It also features Jenny Lewis in what has to be the strangest guest appearance: simply a distortion of her vocalization of the word "boy."

"My Mistake" details the attempted passage of an immigrant into the U.S. for a better life. The refugee is ultimately caught and says that "Hoping for kindness//was my greatest mistake." Koenig's family came to the U.S. as Jewish immigrants seeking asylum. It's safe to assume he empathized a bit with the Mexican immigrants caught by I.C.E. due to the focus of the Trump administration that left many parents separated from their children.

Father of the Bride explores tough topics with an upbeat sound. It features Koenig telling many stories about an imagined life, an imagined marriage that is crumbling. The album is great at creating a sense of acceptable sadness. It's not the doom-and-gloom emo/goth kind of sadness, just a nostalgic longing for simpler times.

My 2019 album of the year is Beware of the Dogs by Welsh-Australian singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly. I was working on a review for this one back in 2019, and telling everyone I could to listen to it, but I never ended up finishing the review because I hate posting them a long time after the album has been released unless it's able to be a retrospective. I described the album as "the album we need right now" and "an indie pop album for the #metoo era."

Donnelly released an E.P. in 2017 and then Beware of the Dogs two years later. If the title didn't already explain it to you, the opening track, "Old Man" should tell you many of the album themes from the fore. "Old Man" details the exploits of a powerful man who sexually harasses young women, knowing that his position makes it unlikely that the women will retaliate. But the narrator is prepared to ensure that it doesn't happen to another young lady, which suddenly shifts the power dynamic. She also begins to hope that other men will help break the culture. The song perfectly describes the situation without sounding contrived, and it's an example of the kind of situations encountered by professional women all over the so-called developed world. Another song in this vein is "Boys Will Be Boys," a haunting song carried over from her EP Thrush Metal that confronts a friend's rapist and the entire culture surrounding him. It's a quiet, floating tune, capable of giving goosebumps. It also contains possibly my favorite line from the whole album: "Like a mower in the morning I will never let you rest." "Boys Will Be Boys" highlights the importance of men taking a stand against toxic men too, a message essential to the effectiveness of the song. "U Owe Me" describes another negative work environment, and serves as what could be a letter of resignation. It touches on the difference between the amount of work being done by the bartenders and managers and accuses this manager of sexual misconduct as well.

"Mosquito" is a seemingly romantic song. It's dreamy, but still with dark undertones in "baby, you're a light and I'm so attracted to ya//a malaria mosquito buzzing in the shadow." It's a stark contrast to "Allergies," a song which plays like breakup song for the same relationship with mentions of the lover never being home. "Allergies," however, definitely has a more morose feel and is defensive of the narrator's choices. I love the choice in this song to include sniffles as though the song is being recorded during a time of actual allergies (which perhaps it was). "Bistro" also discusses the rift between two lovers who don't often see each other or connect emotionally. It's a breakup song with simplistic but functional lyrics. "Bistro" has the most synthesized sound on the album.

The more I listen to "Seasons Greetings," the less sure I am certain of the subject matter, but it's a catchy, attitude-riddled song. It's angry in a smart-alec way. There's also something about the production that sounds nostalgic, as though I'm listening to it on a cassette. I think it's about a problematic relative. I love the line about "she was a punk//my mum's still a punk and you're still s***."

The obvious single of the album is the upbeat "Tricks," which was the first song to really hook me. "Tricks" is a track about the racist, addict f*boy everyone knows. His "southern cross tattoo" is referenced. The southern cross is a growing symbol of racism in Australia. The song is earworm levels of catchy, while still being simple and meaningful like the rest of the album.

"Lunch" and "Die" are both about reckless drivers. "Lunch" has a soft and slow melody and describes the man as being a bad listener. "Die" begins softer and slower, but develops more of a beat.

The lyrics get most complicated on the title track, "Beware of the Dogs." "Beware of the Dogs" is a highly political message. "Beware of the Dogs" is a warning not about actual dogs, but political figures who are oblivious to those around them, not realizing the power they hold makes them impossible to reason with, not caring how poor many of their constituents are. The chorus is a little more confusing. I don't know why the architect is setting fire to her house, whether it is because they failed to listen to her or something else. 

"Watching Telly" tells the story of an ill-suited matchup between Donnelly/the narrator at 21 and a 27 year-old lover. The narrator discusses a difficult decision she had to make without the help of her unsupportive partner. She also touches on the different challenges women have to face.

"Face It" seems to me to be about a relationship that has lost its trust due to a failing on the part of the man, whether it be infidelity or emotional manipulation. The narrator finds herself paining on her eyes and pasting on her smile to keep up appearances but seems damaged underneath.

Beware of the Dogs
is unafraid to be brutal, unashamed to be raw. It's soft and gentle whilst proudly calling out problematic men. Reviewer Robert Christgau describes the album as "a musical encyclopedia of a**holes." That description is amusing and pretty astute. Donnelly's album proves that you can be a soft-spoken soprano writing folk pop and still have a feminist message. 

Me in 2019 with a non-toxic male- my
boyfriend AJ.
Not only do I appreciate what Beware of the Dogs accomplishes lyrically, it has seriously affected the way I think about writing music now. I realize that I don't have to have a big voice to get my message across. Donnelly's ability to transform the mundane into a compelling story through use of her floating melody lines is another aspect that has influenced me. I actually saw this album on a few end-of-the-year lists, which was surprising but it was not nearly on as many lists as it should have been. I discovered Donnelly through Google Play Music as she was playing in Columbus, Ohio that night. So of course, I didn't get to see her, but I'm so glad I was introduced to her. I'm glad I convinced the man at my favorite Ann Arbor record store to let me have the faded promotional poster from the window, which now hangs proudly in my bedroom. I'm sure this album is a difficult listen for men. I know my boyfriend suffered through a lot of it, feeling the emotional weight and listening to me rant about how important an album it is. Everyone should hear it. Women can learn a lot about expressing ourselves, whereas men can learn a bit about what women suffer through, and problematic behaviors to watch out for. The whole album is simple musically, but incredibly complex and important.

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Join me tomorrow for my final article of this series (for now), my favorite album from 2020.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2018


2018 was another really weird year for me in which music was often my solace. 

During a period of depression in the fall of 2018 brought on by an unrequited crush and untreated bipolar disorder, my best friend Erin and I went to see Cults for whom the opener was The Shacks. We were instantly enraptured by The Shacks and their retro sound and soft, dreamy vocals. We started going to any Shacks show we could after that. The album they were supporting was Haze. Haze is quirky in the way that only quality musicianship can be. They use omnichord in the title track for goodness sake! Vocalist Shannon Wise has a high, airy voice that floats over Max Shrager's complex retro instrumentals. Haze was what I needed at the moment I was listening to it, but it's amazing however you slice it.

All but one Lily Allen album so far has been in the runners up, so of course I have to mention her 2018 album, No Shame. Many producers worked with her on it but she chose not to work with Greg Kurstin this time as she wanted to prove she could make a good record without him.  

Mark Ronson and Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) worked with her on "My One," a song about sleeping around but really only having feelings for your special person.

Allen described the album as a "backlash to tabloids," which starts strong on the opening track, "Come On Then." "Come On Then" is about how the press tear people down for entertainment value. Tabloids would make judgements about her personal life as if they knew her, while she spent her time feeling isolated and alone in reality. No one really saw that side of her to know how things were. 

Allen wrote this album after her divorce and an identity crisis about her music. She decided that she wanted to work through her problems with music on No Shame. "Everything to Feel Something" seems to discuss destructive coping mechanisms to mental health issues. "Trigger Bang" featuring Giggs is about Allen's substance abuse issues and the way that people can be toxic to another person's growth process. 

"What You Waiting For?" is about Allen's marriage, her feelings of guilt and regret. "Your Choice" seems to be about a similar topic, but this time focusing more on Allen's annoyance at the jealousy the man seems to feel after her infidelity. Allen's voice is gentle and resigned with some vocal effects added, which contrasts the panicked rap sections by Burna Boy. The next track on this topic, "Lost My Mind" seems to me to be strongest, as it deals with the emotional fallout Allen had to deal with when she and her husband did split. "Family Man" finds Allen at her most self-deprecating about the relationship, though still trying to find a way to fix things. "Apples" somehow gets even sadder. Allen describes the idyllic start to her relationship, the breakdown, and her guilt that she couldn't avoid creating a broken home for her children like the one she had grown up in. 

"Three" is written from her daughter's point of view; she hates seeing her mother go away on tour and just wants her to stay at home. "Pushing Up Daisies" is an adorable, romantic song. I don't know what place it comes from, but it's not as sad a tone as the rest of the album, at least at face value. "Cake" is downright empowering.

Allen is unafraid of writing personal lyrics, which makes for an album that is uninhibited, tragic, and beautiful.

The snippets I heard of Egypt Station on "Carpool Karaoke" piqued my interest. I don't normally watch "Carpool Karaoke" or listen to full, new Paul McCartney albums, but when I heard bits of "Come On to Me" I was sure I wanted to hear the rest. Then I found out the whole album was produced by Greg Kurstin and I had to listen to it. I wasn't the only one. Egypt Station is the first McCartney album to debut at #1 on the U.S. charts, and the first since Tug of War in 1982 to reach #1. 

Egypt Station is a loosely-framed concept album. McCartney explained, "Egypt Station starts off at the station on the first song, and then each song is like a different station. So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from." 

Like Lily Allen on No Shame, McCartney also had some things he was using music to work through. He used "I Don't Know" in such a way, saying of it; "I wrote this after going through a difficult period. Like people have nothing sort of madly serious or anything, but just one of those days when it’s like, 'Oh my god, am I doing wrong here,' you know. And sometimes that’s a good way to write a song, because you’re coming from your soul. And we often used to say that writing a song was like talking to a psychiatrist, a therapist or something. Because you’re saying it… You are saying it in a song rather than in a room to a specialist." Despite the somber mood of the song, McCartney said it was cathartic getting to express the feelings out loud in song. "I Don't Know" is a great song for depression that you're completely unaware of the source of. 

"Come On to Me" is a lot of fun. It's upbeat and it revolves around a guy trying to talk to a girl at a party (according to McCartney, possibly in the '60s). The relaxed "Happy With You" follows "Come On to Me," setting a sweet, lazy tone for the album. McCartney reflected on his less-busy times, as well as the way some of his friends would self-medicate until they grew out of it or found happiness somewhere. 

Greg Kurstin and McCartney create some '80s vibes for "Who Cares," which McCartney says was a message of support to his young fans; "I was imagining young fans, or young people generally, who might be going through being picked on or being put down. These days it would be internet bullying, trolls and all that. I know it happens all over the world to millions of people so my thing was to try to give advice." McCartney says he was also inspired by the relationship Taylor Swift has with her young fans. 

The most relevant, modern sound comes from "Fuh You," one of the few tracks not produced by Kurstin, but instead Ryan Tedder. McCartney told Tedder he wanted to write a hit, and this was a song that came out of the session. Tedder wrote many hits for other artists and McCartney was encouraged to work with him by Kurstin and the fact that Tedder had written Beyoncé's "Halo." McCartney wanted to write the track in such a way that it was questionable as to what the title meant. I think that both lyrically and musically it works really well, but many critics did not, some implying that Tedder was forcing his sound on McCartney. 

"Confidante" is McCartney's love song to his guitars that have served him through the years. McCartney has a knack for writing love songs to things other than people (such as "Martha My Dear" being for his dog). He thought it only fitting to write a love song for something he would always tell his troubles to in his younger days. 

He wrote "Hand In Hand" for his third wife, Nancy Shevell as a love song not just about love, but partnership. The song was written in the early days of their relationship, but must have still rung true seven years into their marriage when he recorded it. One of the cellists who performed on the track told McCartney after the recording, "I'm getting married for the second time and I'm a little bit nervous. But this song has made me think it's going to work out all right," which made him feel certain that writing the song was the correct thing to do.

"People Want Peace" was inspired by McCartney's concert in Israel and subsequent trip to Palestine, along with something his father used to say, "People want peace. It's the politicians and the leaders who get into wars." He explored a little of this topic on "Pipes of Peace," but this is a great re-examination of the premise. McCartney dips his toe into activism again for "Despite Repeated Warnings," which is about climate change deniers (or just those who aren't working to counteract it), accomplished through the metaphor of a ship's captain who continues to steer a ship toward an iceberg. He especially intended to direct it toward politicians who were ignoring climate change and referring to it as a hoax.  

I was blown away by Egypt Station. McCartney stayed true to himself while producing music that is vibrant and current. Kurstin's work can't be understated but the writing McCartney did for Egypt Station is some of his strongest in years too. The songs are catchier than anything I've heard him do since "Ever Present Past."

The Decemberists also exceeded my expectations in 2018 with I'll Be Your Girl. The Decemberists have been on my radar for years. The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love were both beautiful albums. I was disappointed by 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and was afraid they had just begun to lose their touch. Yet somehow, I'll Be Your Girl was better than anything I could have dreamt.

For years, the sound of The Decemberists had remained mostly unchanged. Sure, there were those who noted the difference in Hazards, but largely the folk-rock sound wasn't altered. When the first single from I'll Be Your Girl was released ("Severed"), it was clear that the band had made some changes, moving toward a synthesized sound that bordered on psychedelia. I liked "Severed" but wasn't sure how the new sound would translate to a whole album. It worked though. It worked very well.

I spent many the manic night listening to this album. Nights when I only slept 2-3 hours, I would toss and turn listening to it between Youtube videos or episodes of Glow. Frontman Colin Meloy began working on the album in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, saying "there was immediately this onset of despair. Like real despair. Real depression, and then sort of climbing out of it." "Everything is Awful" was the song written in immediate response.

"Once in My Life" kicks off the album with that kind of despair, in a song reminiscent of The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." It's the kind of song you can cry to or just pray to if that's what you need. The bassline and keyboard parts are absolutely addictive and reminiscent of The Cure or New Order. It can be viewed as a romantic want as in the aforementioned Smiths song, or just as a hope about life in general. When I listened to this album again in late August/early September, this song was almost the only way I could feel my emotions expressed.

"Cutting Stone" is a more classic Decemberists track with a synthesizer running in the background and a synthesized bass part that reminds me of mid-'80s Kate Bush music. The story is dark and haunting, telling a murderous tale. It could also be another way of describing the situation in "Severed." "Severed" has an earworm of a synthesizer part, and the lyrics are perhaps the best representation of what Meloy was going for on the album. "Severed" is told from the perspective of the political leader who is trying to divide the nation. The way Meloy has written his lyrics for years, it gives the subject matter more of a storybook feel, but the message is still clear. "Starwatcher" is about impending trouble, probably beginning with the political turmoil.

"Tripping Along" has a relatively calm tone, which makes the start of "Your Ghost" all the more jarring. Jenny Conlee's vocals on "Your Ghost" are absolutely haunting (no pun intended). 

The title track wraps up the album. Meloy wanted to go with a lighter song to counteract the darkness of the rest of the album. He was playing with gender expectations and the ideas of masculinity society has typically has. 

Up until September, I would have definitely picked Egypt Station or I'll Be Your Girl as my record of the year without a doubt. But during and after September, two more excellent albums were brought to my attention. 

I mentioned back in my 2011 article that my friend Zack sometimes manages to present me with the perfect album at the perfect moment. In fall of 2018, he repeated his trick with Sun Machine by Rubblebucket. I'd never even heard of them before, but he slipped this CD to me and I found myself identifying with it as soon as I listened to "Party Like Your Heart Hurts." I had spent about a month or two at that point going to karaoke bars pretty much every night to try to hide my sadness. I met someone on one such night who had also been going out to try to hide his sadness. There was something perfect about the song that made me get ahold of Zack immediately to tell him. He sheepishly admitted that he thought I would relate to it.

The album as a whole is a confusing and lovely piece. Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver (the primary duo in Rubblebucket) went through a great deal leading up to its production including, but not limited to, their breakup as a couple, Traver's cancer diagnosis and treatment, and Toth's decision to get sober from alcohol. When Toth and Traver split romantically, they continued to feel their connection as people and continued to write and perform together. They are an unusual band to start with, their sound being a mesh of indie/art pop/psychedelia but with heavy brass. Sun Machine takes those elements and adds to them the concept of a dance-y breakup album. Themes of sadness, heartbreak and self-discovery are common throughout. Traver's voice is an unusual mixture of elements too, sometimes channeling Patty Donahue (The Waitresses), sometimes channeling disco, and most frequently providing quiet, breathy vocals. 

"Lemonade" is a standout breakup song, with lyrics like "you were like the American dream//made me want things I don't really need" and "Did I make you mean?//Or were you always that way?." "Party Like Your Heart Hurts" is a beautiful song outside of its significance to my life. "Fruity" serves as an appreciation of an ex-partner, featuring the line, "I gazed at your face for too long//'till my own was gone." 

Zack invited me to their show and it stands out in my head still as one of the best live shows I've been to in recent memory. Sun Machine is absolutely gorgeous in its' unusual songwriting and the emotions it conveys. I don't know if the duo will continue to work together, but giving the world Sun Machine was a gift enough that they should be able to do whatever they want.

At some point in early 2019, my newfound boyfriend and I started discussing a single we'd been hearing on the radio that was catchy and meaningful. I'd never managed to get into the band before, despite my attempts, but this song was really poppy and on-the-nose. The song was "Everybody's Lonely" by the band Jukebox the Ghost, a band that had been recommended to me for years since I was a fan of Tally Hall and Miniature Tigers. "Everybody's Lonely" is Jukebox the Ghost's most successful single to date, reaching #22 on the alternative charts. We decided to go to their concert (although I ended up going with Erin instead) and so I prepared myself by listening to the album they would be supporting, Off to the Races.

Off to the Races is an album largely about growing older and settling down. Between the title and "Everybody's Lonely," that might not sound like the case, but it is. The album title comes from the opening track "Jumpstarted," a song that I see several ways to interpret. To me, it seems to be about spotting the person you know you're going to settle down with. There is an element of the panic one (particularly a guy) might feel when realizing they're about to settle down, hence "my advice//is run while you still can." But that line could also be interpreted to mean "settle down while you still can" as the song uses "off to the races//got my love jumpstarted" to describe the start of a relationship. In fact, I am most inclined to believe the latter, just based on the rest of the album. The song could also just be about someone who is just chasing after multiple people they think are "the one" Perhaps that would make the most sense in another way, as it leads into "Everybody's Lonely." "Jumpstarted" works in several movements. It begins with a slow, piano-accompanied intro (reminiscent of "Somebody to Love" by Queen) laden with multi-layered backing vocals.  The band reportedly recorded over 100 vocal tracks for "Jumpstarted." The piano speeds up the tempo slightly until the whole band joins in for the first chorus. Later on, a synthesizer solo gives way to Tommy Siegel's Brian May-influenced guitar solo. The song wraps up with an acapella section that leaves the lyrical line "run while you still-" open, implying that the option of running is perhaps no longer there. 

"Everybody's Lonely" makes sense as the band's most successful single to date. It is masterful. The piano line soars and Ben Thornewill's voice is shown off, both in tone and range. Thornewill told Consequence Sound that the inspiration for the song's premise dates all the way back to World War II, when men were away at war and his grandmother asked his great grandmother why every song was about love and received the answer, "because everyone is so lonesome, dear." Even without a World War on, that still rings incredibly true years later. The song explores both the premise of songs being written to combat the loneliness, and the things people do to combat the loneliness, namely falling again and again into ultimately heartbreaking relationships. The upbeat nature of the song makes it instantly a sing-along song, and I think everyone can relate to the subject matter at least a little bit. Thornewill also draws a comparison between all of these love songs and the work of Jackson Pollock, who was constantly challenging what art was. The song poses the question of whether every love song is a piece of art, and I think by proxy, asks us if every relationship has merit, or if some are just there because, yet again, "Everybody's Lonely." Thornewill keeps time with the piano almost as much as Jessie Kristin does on drums, leaving Tommy Siegel to explore more Brian May/Jeff Lynne sounds on the guitar. All of these elements wrapped up into a 3-minute power-pop track make it hard to resist.

The band's Queen influences are heard throughout the album. The title may even be a reference to Queen's A Day at the Races. After all, Jukebox the Ghost had been doing a yearly "Halloqueen" show in which they performed one set as themselves and one as Queen. But none of this is to say they are unoriginal. Acts influenced by and compared to Queen are so prevalent that I even wrote an article compiling them back in 2015. The majority of those acts and Jukebox the Ghost have added their own twist on some of the ideas that Queen inspired. They told Google that they used Queen as the range of acceptable weirdness on the album, encouraging themselves to do stranger things within the confines of "What would Queen do?"

Not only do the boys of Jukebox the Ghost show off a range of other talents far different from Queen (such as a wider vocal range, more complex use of keys, etc), but they don't even stick to that sound influence through the whole album. On track three, they explore more of a mid/late '80s Huey Lewis/Robert Palmer kind of sound courtesy of Siegel's songwriting. "People Go Home" is the first song identifiably about growing up and settling into a boring life. It's not an endorsement by any means; more of a warning. "People Go Home" is a reminder that even though you are an adult, you should not be living to work, letting the days slip by repetitiously. 

Much like Siegel's "People Go Home," Thornewill's "Time and I" focuses on the passage of time and how life keeps rolling along whether you're ready for it or not. Thornewill was inspired by speaking with 98-year-old painter Ilana Smithkin, who said "time and I don't see eye to eye." While it's primarily about time passing and getting older, I think there is another inkling of the narrator's desire to settle down. "With our history, won't you please//Slow down for me or at least try?" is probably being addressed to time itself, but could also be intended for a lover that the narrator hopes will join him in slowing down and trying to avoid the meaningless passage of time.

Further enforcing the idea that they have found their own sound is "Fred Astaire." There's nothing derivative about "Fred Astaire," a Thornewill composition that serves as genuinely one of the cutest love songs I have ever heard. "Fred Astaire" isn't a love song about what makes a love beautiful or which of their features are the best, it is about appreciating someone who loves you for you and lets you be yourself. Something about the specifics in this song leads me to believe it came from a pretty personal place as well. As someone who is dating a songwriter, "sing the wrong lines to my own song, you don't mind" sounds far too specific to be about a random, imaginary woman. The most on-the-nose romantic line I may have ever heard though is "all my idiosyncrasies//you like 'em." I can think of a few similar lines or songs, but there is something just instantly heartwarming about the simplicity of that lyric and the way Thornewill sings it. 

Heavier guitar announces another Siegel composition with "Diane." Siegel says he was heavily influenced by The Kinks, early Beatles, and most of all The Beach Boys when writing "Diane." He wanted to write something akin to the fun of The Beach Boys Party! where the album is recorded as though it's live at a party. He said the line "you make me feel like I'm gonna die//Diane" felt a bit "like a morbid, anxiety-riddled response" to "Help Me Rhonda" by The Beach Boys. Also, listen for the harmonies in there! You won't regret it.

"See You Soon" takes the award for saddest song on the album. It's a little unclear whether the subject of the song has passed on or just moved on. No matter what, it seems as though the narrator doesn't expect to see them again. The verses are often about memories, as in "Remember when our street felt like everything?//Remember when your life felt like it would be never-ending?

Siegel's masterpiece on the album is "Boring," which features some Beach Boys harmonies. "Boring" bemoans the fact that people around the narrator are becoming adults and settling down. By the end of the song though, the narrator is actually realizing that he craves that life more than he realized, begging for the object of his affection to settle down with him, lest they "become someone lame with someone else." The apex of settling-down lines comes close to the end, with the narrator telling the subject, "I don't think you're boring//I don't think you're lame." His mindset has changed to the point that he may not realize what makes these other folks "boring" but kind of sees life with this person as its own adventure. 

"Simple as 1 2 3" is one of my favorite types of songs, the kind that describes that je ne sais quoi of falling in love, how seemingly random it can be. A thesis I have about the entire album comes from this song and the lines "So take a risk//And find a little love//Hidden where you didn't see it//'Cause the time you have is all the time you've got." I believe that the album isn't just about growing older, but about trying to settle down. Risk it. Find that love. Settle down, become boring.

To back that premise up a little more, I ask you to look at the closing track, "Colorful," particularly the pre-chorus, "Work hard, play hard, we don't have to grow up//Hide and seek, promise me that we'll never grow up." The album is about growing up, settling down, but maintaining the spark you have as a young person. Make adulting fun. We're just getting started. By the way, "Colorful" is a perfect closing track. It sums up the album, gives it closure musically, and is a good song to boot.

Best friend Erin and I at the Cults/
Shacks show, 2018.
Obviously, from the title of these articles, I am fast-approaching thirty. I'm not really upset about it. I love my life, I enjoy "adulting," and I never really reached the wild part of my youth and I'm okay with that. I have to say though, there is something comforting about this album. It's a message that we're getting older but everything will be okay. Just like MGMT's Oracular Spectacular came out just before I went to college, and ended up being the soundtrack of the late teens for many nihilistic youths, I think this album has a special place for people of my generation. Millennials have been accused of having Peter Pan syndrome (which I'm sure had nothing to do with the constant barrage of media that taught us that adults were boring and not to be trusted, living lives devoid of fun and color. Seriously, watch a '90s cereal commercial and tell me I'm wrong), and I think this album is a warm blanket telling us that it's okay to grow up. We don't have to look at relationships, raising a family and "adulting" as chores. They can be just as fun as anything we did as kids or young adults if we just approach them with the right mindset. 

I also just really like this album. It's fun and meaningful. The piano is gorgeous, the guitar work is great, and the drums add just what the songs need. Both of the songwriters in the band do great work and Thornewill's voice is incredible. I wasn't a fan of Jukebox the Ghost before this album, but now I eagerly await their next project.

That leaderboard is almost full, let's check in on it!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2019.

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2017


In 2017, I was very wrapped up in work yet again. For this year, I only have one runner-up.

The very young pop-punk rockers The Regrettes released their debut album, Feel Your Feelings Fool! in 2017 when the lead singer/songwriter Lydia Night was just 16. Despite their young ages, the band was able to channel both punk rock and '60s sounds with some riot grrl elements dashed in.  Night has also stated that she fell in love for the first time while writing and recording the album, giving it the emotional power of first love on top of the power it already had. 

Mike Elizondo produced this album and their follow-up. Having seen them live, I feel like Elizondo did a great job of stepping back to let the band shine. 

Topics range from crushes to empowering songs about acceptance of women as they are, including the bits men might be uncomfortable with. "A Living Human Girl" and "Seashore" both relate to female empowerment, individuality, and acceptance of oneself. "Hey Now" is definitely a song for a crush. Some songs are fast and loud like "Hot" and "Juicebox Baby," while "Pale Skin" is a little slower. 

The Regrettes were just getting started on this album, yet it's still one of the best releases of the year. 

Squeeze released The Knowledge in 2017 and it might be one of my favorite albums they've done. On their 2015 album, Cradle to the Grave, the main purpose was to write a soundtrack album. On The Knowledge, they had the opportunity to explore more topics and musical styles. They write about politics, record collectors and nostalgia. 

"Innocence in Paradise" was the album's lead single and the spiritual title track for the album. The arrangement brings to mind Westerns and desolation. The second single was "Patchouli," a song that reminisces about a simpler time. 

"A&E" and "Rough Ride" conquer social topics, with "A&E" calling for a change to the English healthcare system and "Rough Ride" discussing wealth disparity. "The Ones" is also an exploration of the current state-of-affairs, focusing on fake news and wealth disparity once again. "Final Score" is the sad tale of a man coming to terms with the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of his coach. 

Much lighter topics can be found in "Every Story" and "Albatross," the latter of which is a fun track about an aging record collector.

With my friend Felicia outside of the former 
Nickelodeon Studios in Florida, 2017.
I've been a fan of Squeeze since high school when my mom would play a cassette of Squeeze tracks in the car. Since then, I've seen them a couple of times and even have tickets to see them open for Hall and Oates this Summer. I have also had the good fortune to interview Chris Difford for Rebeat (online music magazine). When The Knowledge came out, I was sent a review copy. 

I love The Knowledge for a number of reasons. I think the melodies are interesting, I love the serious turn the lyrics took. Yolanda Charles provides fresh but fitting basslines. The album also hit me at just the right time in my life. I was listening to it the same time as I was reading John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, which felt like a very personal book that resonated with my life, and I felt that the mood of The Knowledge was very similar. "Patchouli" will always seem like the perfect soundtrack to that book. It's also just one of my favorite songs on the album, along with "Albatross," "Innocence in Paradise" and "Every Story."

It's been four years since Squeeze released an album. I'm sure there will be another one but if not, this would be a good note to go out on.

Let's see that leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2018.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2016


We're coming into the home stretch with only five years left to go, including this one. In 2016, I settled into my life as a general manager and moved to Delaware, Ohio. I didn't post as much on this blog, but there were a few albums that stood out to me a great deal. 

In the last article I talked about Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow, who worked extensively with Mark Ronson on Uptown Special. In 2016, Swedish band Miike Snow released one of my favorite albums of the year, iiiiii is my favorite Miike Snow album to date. It is somehow more than the previous two albums. It's more full of pop, more full of electronic sounds, more disco. The production brings the vocals to the front. The songwriting is stronger. Andrew Wyatt's vocals are better on iii than the previous albums because he decided to go for a stronger studio sound rather than something that could be applied to a performance setting. 

"My Trigger" opens the album with a grooving electronic track that samples J Dilla's "The Diff'rence," which in turn samples "Fruitman" by Kool & the Gang. Wyatt had to add his own piano chords in order to complete the otherwise incomplete loop, but the songwriters of both sampled songs receive songwriting credit as well as the men in Miike Snow. 

Charlie XCX contributes vocals to a couple of songs on the record, namely "For U" and the second track of the album "The Heart of Me," on which she provides backing vocals. 

"Genghis Khan" has been the band's most successful single to date here in the U.S. It's an earworm of a song about jealousy. Wyatt based the song on his own feelings of intense jealousy during a long-distance relationship with a girl he refused to commit to, but nonetheless felt jealous at the thought of her seeing anyone else. 

A perfect use of sampling comes on "Heart is Full," in which Miike Snow use Marlena Shaw's version of the Bob Hilliard and Burt Bacharach-penned "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home." The sample receives just the right amount of use and filtering, and is mixed to great effect with the band's original material. Miike Snow did not create the original backing track, however. Another, unnamed producer created it but didn't complete it or clear the sample, and thus gave it to the band to use.

 The remainder of the album is all upbeat electro-pop. It's catchy and fun, with an element of wistfulness to it.

Speaking of wistfulness, Regina Spektor's 2016 album Remember Us To Life is also loaded with it. The title of the album is actually a perfect representation of what can be found on it. Spektor weaves stories throughout the album that have nostalgic qualities. This one had to grow on me a bit, but after I saw her support it live, I was sold. 

The opening track and lead single from the album "Bleeding Heart" seems to be Spektor's letter to her misunderstood younger self. Again, her lyrics are open to a great deal of interpretation as she will rarely reveal much about her songs. 

That said, there is another song that I imagine has a personal element to it. Spektor gave birth to a son in 2014, and "The Light" seems to be addressed to him (and possibly about post-partem depression? Probably not. Don't want to make any leaps). 

Spektor's lyrics might be obtuse, but there are beautiful lines found in them, particularly, "Older and Taller," which features lines like, "enjoy your youth/sounds like a threat/but I will anyway." "You're alone 'til you're not alone/And that's all you need to know" is another meaningful line, made all the better by Spektor's unusual melody. I have to mention one more line which is gorgeous and drives home the theme of reminiscence: "And the things that you never did/Have become your youth, somehow."

The most overall powerful song is "The Grand Hotel," which tells the story of a fancy hotel centered just over the gates to Hell. The lyrics are rich and full, with a mild humor to them. The story is, of course, a little tough to parse, so I'll let you make your own interpretation as to whether it's a metaphor or not. I'm inclined to think not, but I would also love to see an animated or stop-motion literal interpretation of the story. 

Spektor in Columbus, Ohio in 2017.
When I saw her live, the most interesting song to watch her perform was "Small Bill$," a track that is close to being rap or hip-hop, but isn't quite there. The chorus is just a melodic series of "la"s and acts as the perfect vehichle for Spektor's voice. The plot of the song seems to center around someone who has a great deal of potential but squanders it away. Then, either the same person or another main character has been engaging in some form of embezzlement and is about to have to pay for their misdeeds. 

"Black and White" fits the theme of memories, as does "Obsolete" and "The Visit." "Sellers of Flowers" has a retrospective plot, discussing flower sellers and visiting the market with her father. Spektor's piano work is excellent on "Sellers of Flowers."

"The Trapper and the Furrier" addresses the disparity of power and success in the world, from the cruel hunting of animals to the wealth disparity in business, to the unfair practices in the pharmaceutical industry. The chorus wraps the three verses together each time by saying: "What a strange, strange world we live in//Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven//What a strange, strange world we live in//Those who don't have lose, those who got get given//More, more, more, more."

I didn't think upon my first listen to this album that it was much of anything, but I was very wrong. It's almost tied with Far as my favorite Regina Spektor album.

My favorite band are The Monkees, and that could easily be used as an excuse for why I identify Good Times! as my favorite album of 2016, but that's not it. It's genuinely a very good album.

Adam Schlesinger was brought on board to produce. Schlesinger had a knack for making tracks sound both retro and original as he did when he wrote "That Thing You Do." For Good Times!, that meant he was able to keep the sound similar to the music The Monkees were known for in the '60s without making it into Dad rock. Monkees historian and music archivist Andrew Sandoval was also brought on board to help produce existing tracks. 

Conceptually, Good Times! is a mix of songs by the artists that wrote for The Monkees in the '60s, songs composed by modern artists who take inspiration from The Monkees, and a couple of original tunes by the living Monkees themselves. 

The title track kicks off the album, a duet with Micky Dolenz and his late friend and occasional songwriter for The Monkees, Harry Nilsson. An unused demo was utilized and completed to make for a perfect title track. After all, the album is all about recapturing the "good times."

The second track on the album is one of the strongest, "You Bring the Summer" by Andy Partridge (XTC). For "You Bring the Summer," Partridge is able to tone down some of his more unusual melody choices to make it more palatable, but there is still enough uniqueness to pair with the sunny lyrics and make for a one-of-a-kind sunshine jam. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer wrote "She Makes Me Laugh." Evidently, Cuomo had been playing with the opening line of the song since 1998. Cuomo's mind seemed to be on the creation of sunny pop tunes as his album with Weezer from the same year, the self-titled White Album is the most sunshine-ey Weezer album (it was inspired by beach music but is most congruent with the music of The Monkees of anything Weezer has done). Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie wrote the album's ballad, which received a great deal of praise from critics and Monkees fans alike. Michael Nesmith appreciated it so much that he ended up becoming acquainted with Gibbard, even having him appear as a guest on the West coast dates of his First National Band tour. "Me & Magdalena" is a perfect song for a drive in late spring/early summer. There's something soothing and calming about it. The unlikely duo of Noel Gallagher (Oasis, Noel Gallagher's High-Flying Birds) and Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council) wrote "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" a song with a distinctly different verse and chorus which come together to form the most psychedelic accomplishment present.

Adam Schlesinger himself wrote "Our Own World," which is of course a '60s/early '70s pastiche that works out perfectly as sung by Micky Dolenz. It serves as a bridge into the second '60s song by composers, Jeff Barry and Joey Levine, "Gotta Give it Time." The guitar in "Gotta Give it Time" is incredibly throwback in the most positive way. It's actually one of the more classic-sounding tracks.

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were frequent Monkees collaborators, with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz even releasing an album with them in the '70s. Their contribution of "Whatever's Right" also features a heavy throwback sound with a new intro to worn its way into your head. Neil Diamond's "Love to Love" as performed by Jones has been floating around for years as it was issued on Missing Links. The Good Times! version is different though, remixed and produced for this album specifically. Peter Tork takes lead on the Gerry Goffin and Carole King track, "Wasn't Born to Follow," a song recorded by The Byrds and included on the Easy Rider soundtrack. The song is about the freedom of hippies in the late sixties, and it finds a perfect home on the album with Tork's vocals.

Unfortunately, Peter Tork's involvement on the album was somewhat limited, but he did write "Little Girl," a song that fits Tork's voice and the overall rambling summer feel of the album. Nesmith offered up "I Know What I Know." It's a soft, self-effacing love song. Dolenz collaborated with Schlesinger for the closing song, "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)." The title is a reference to a joke Dolenz likes to make about his partying days. It makes the song all the more effective as a closer.

I started to get excited about this project as soon as it was announced. Not just because it was The Monkees, but because of all the names attached to it, the plans to use existing audio of the late Davy Jones (and even the late Harry Nilsson) to ensure that no member was left out. After Davy's death, Michael Nesmith seemed to really snap out of his disbelief that The Monkees still meant something to people. He became far more involved in Monkees work, touring again and involving himself in whatever shenanigans. I was thrilled of course that Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo and most of all Benjamin Gibbard were attached to the project. If you'll notice, all three of those songwriters wrote for at least one of my other albums of the year. I knew Gibbard was a Monkees fan, as he covered "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow" at a solo show and I've caught other references in the past. I became a much bigger fan of Adam Schlesinger in the last few years as I learned more about him and watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Schlesinger was an incredibly talented songwriter and producer.

Good Times! is a floating summer album. It's a picnic. It's proof that old acts don't have to make an album with dated sounds. It's proof that The Monkees specifically still had it fifty years later.

Let's go to that leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2017.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2015


Even though there were many great albums in 2015, the winner was clear. As such, I'm only going to include two runners-up, but you can see my full analysis of 2015 albums in an earlier article I wrote.

My first runner-up wasn't on my list of my favorite albums of 2015. I am ashamed to say I didn't hear about this artist until 2018 and thanks to my friends Zack and Erin. 

Tame Impala has been making music since 2007 and really reached a critical and commercial milestone with 2015's Currents. Tame Impala is really just the musical pseudonym for Kevin Parker, who writes, performs and produces sad, psychedelic music. On his first two albums, Parker had collaborators. Such was not the case with Currents, which is truly a product of just Parker. The sound of Currents is far more full of synthesizers than guitars, creating more of a dance sound than previous albums. There is an underlying theme to Currents of personal transition and growing older, as well as breaking up with an ill-suited lover. Parker poured himself into the album, obsessing over working on it and isolating himself for the cause. The work paid off. The album is full of meaning, complexity, and beauty. 

Kate Pierson has been a member of The B-52's since their formation in 1976, but she didn't release her first solo album until 2015's Guitars and Microphones. The album was produced by Tim Anderson and Sia (yes, that Sia). The songs are cowritten by Pierson and various people including Anderson, Sia, Dallas Austin, Sam Dixon, and Nick Valensi (on hiatus from The Strokes). 

Things begin with "Throw Down the Roses," a song Pierson describes as an upbeat, neo-punk riot grrrl song. It seems poppy to me but the premise is empowering, the narrator refusing to be a groupie as she's an artist in her own right.

"Mister Sister" serves as the album's lead single, and celebrates a drag queen finding her identity in the world of rigid gender roles. The bassline is the glue that holds the track together musically. Fred Armisen starred in the video.

"Bottoms Up" is my favorite. It's a straight-up bop with Valensi playing one of his signature rhythm guitar lines, the percussion pulling the song along.

Pierson's voice sounds young and vibrant. It's incredible to realize her actual age when she released this album. Each track adds something new to the table. The arrangement and production of the album is fantastic. I feel like this album didn't really get enough credit.

The album of 2015 for me was definitely Uptown Special by Mark Ronson.

Ronson's career has led him many places, several since Uptown Special. He's a DJ, he's a producer. His debut album Here Comes the Fuzz was primarily rap and hip-hop, while Version was loaded with British soul, brass instruments, and is (as the title implies) exclusively cover versions of other songs. His third album, Record Collection (as Mark Ronson and the Business International) contained some indie pop artists alongside electronic throwback beats and fantastic rap from Ghostface Killah, Q-Tip and Spank Rock.

For Uptown Special, Ronson continues to employ great rappers like Mystikal, as well as working with pop stars like Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars and geniuses of psychedelic and synthesized music like the aforementioned Kevin Parker and Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt. Author Michael Chabon contributed lyrics to the majority of the album, creating a literary element to Uptown Special that Ronson's previous work had lacked. Ronson and Chabon began working together when Ronson wrote Chabon a letter of recruitment after reading his book, Telegraph Avenue. Ronson realized while reading the book that Chabon had a deep knowledge of music. Chabon told The Observer of writing lyrics for the album "I will lean more towards the wistful, melancholy regretful note in my lyrics and Mark tends to favor the more optimistic lyrics - that tension, if you will, proved really fruitful." Uptown Special ebbs and flows, alternating between the smooth tracks that tell a story and the more upbeat tracks, but nothing is lost for this, only gained. 

Here in the states, everyone is familiar with the first single, "Uptown Funk," featuring Bruno Mars. I don't often make predictions because I realize my tastes are a little offbeat, but I predict that "Uptown Funk" will be one of the most well-remembered songs of the 2010s twenty plus years down the road. I am sure there are people who don't like it but I haven't met them. Whenever it comes on, people feel like dancing and despite regular airplay, it never seemed to get stale. It contains elements of funk, disco, pop, soul, boogie and Minneapolis sound. "Uptown Special" sat at the top of the American charts for fourteen weeks, and the U.K. charts for seven weeks. It became a worldwide phenomenon. The video for the song still sits at number seven on the most viewed videos of all time with 4.18 billion view, beating out the first video to reach a billion views, Psy's "Gangnam Style." "Uptown Funk" took home the Grammy for record of the year and best pop duo/group performance. The success of the song came after a great deal of work from Ronson, Mars, and Jeff Bhasker. They worked on the track for seven months, the work spanning three locations and so many takes at times that Ronson once passed out trying to perfect a guitar part.

The second single released was "Daffodils," which features Kevin Parker's dreamy vocals. Parker and Chabon developed the song around the idea of a fictional drug. Parker had to explain to Chabon what it was like to come down off of a drug, and used a song by The Streets as an explanation and an example of what he was trying to do. Chabon told NME of working with Parker on the lyrics, "He writes entire complete songs and here I was stepping into this groove that he had come up with. I felt nervous, but Kevin was very gracious. He didn't express any doubt or frustration that I was intruding."

Another track featuring a collaboration between Parker and Chabon is "Summer Breaking." It was also written with Ronson and Bhasker. Ronson said that the chords for the song came from his attempts to impress Bhasker. Ronson has identified "Summer Breaking" as his favorite song on the album. 

The final Parker vocal track (he played drums on several others) is "Leaving Los Feliz." Los Feliz is an affluent California neighborhood in which parties are common. The song is about an aging hipster who realizes he needs to stop going to the parties.

Bhasker really shines on "In Case of Fire," a song on which he takes lead vocals for the first time in his career. He also appears on the second of two Stevie Wonder songs that bookend the album, with the first ("Uptown's First Finale") seeing Wonder joined by Andrew Wyatt. "Uptown's First Finale" as a title is a play on the title of Wonder's 1974 album Fulfillingness' First Finale. Ronson's dream was to get Wonder on the track. He wrote a letter to Wonder's manager and sent the song hoping for a response. After a long wait before Ronson was told that Wonder liked the track and wanted to be on it. "Crack in the Pearl Pt. II" features not only vocals from Bhasker and Wonder, but Wonder plays a fabulous harmonica part. 

Andrew Wyatt has his hand in many songs as well. "Crack in the Pearl acts as the first part of the final song, while "Heavy and Rolling" comes just before said finale on the album. "Heavy and Rolling" utilized a bassline Wyatt wrote for an uncompleted xx remix. The title is taken from a NYC cabbie expression meaning that the driver has passengers and are on the job.

I can't leave Mystikal out. His track "Feel Right" is the only rap track on the album, and it utilizes his gruff, mildly comical style. Even though it's the only rap track, the funky backing track ensures that it fits with the rest of the album. Mystikal's flow on this track is a must-hear.

Finally, there is one track on the album with a singer who was a complete unknown. Ronson and Bhasker travelled through the deep south, visiting churches, nightclubs, bars, and community centers before they found the perfect vocalist at Mississippi State. Keyone Starr's voice soars. Typically Ronson has far more female collaborators, but Starr ends up being the only one on Uptown Special, making her performance stand out even more. 

With my sister Ivy at Tower Bridge
during our first trip to London, 2015.
I've been a big fan of Ronson's work ever since I heard his production on the Lily Allen-led version of "Oh My God." When "Uptown Funk" was being played everywhere, I couldn't have been more pleased. The album was an instant hit with me, and the perfect Summer album for 2015. I read Telegraph Avenue myself around that time, not realizing the connection at first. Once I did, "Summer Breaking" seemed to fit the mood of the book perfectly. I love it when anyone is able to successfully blend genres, which Ronson's DJ prowess makes him an expert at. Uptown Special blends more sounds than any other Ronson album, and still comes out as the most polished, coherent project. 

I'd heard of Miike Snow, and even listened to a couple of tracks, but didn't really get into them until the next year, but I appreciated Wyatt's work. I wouldn't become familiar with Tame Impala for a few years, but knew I liked Kevin Parker from his work on this album. Keyone Starr's voice blew me away.

All of the elements of this album come together to make it perfect. If you like "Uptown Funk" and haven't heard this album, that's your homework.

Leaderboard, please!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 2016.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2014


I didn't listen to many new albums in 2014 for a variety of reasons. There were some really good albums released that year, but between working 60+ hour weeks, my grandpa's death, moving and trying to tidy up my mental health, I didn't have much energy left to use on listening to and reviewing a ton of new albums. My year-in-review that year was only about singles. There were quite a few good albums though. Taylor Swift, Lily Allen, Speak, and Ingrid Michaelson all had good releases in my opinion. But my favorites were...

Runner-up number four is Not a Trampoline by Rob Cantor (formerly of Tall Hall). I had the good fortune to review this album ahead of its release, and the opportunity to interview Rob Cantor about the album. Cantor and producer Gregtronic went for a very synthesized '80s sound on the majority of the album. The topics of songs range from the heartfelt ("Ghost," "All I Need is You") to the silly ("Flamingo" and oddly, "In Memoriam," a track in remembrance of the still-living Alan Alda). My favorite song on the album has to be "Let Your Mother Know," tied with a track adapted from a Tally Hall song, "I'm Gonna Win." All of the songs on Not a Trampoline are good. The marketing surrounding the album is also choice, from the unusual album art crafted by Bora Karaca to the viral music videos (the video for "Perfect" has 18 million views and was crafted to appear as though Cantor is doing celebrity impressions whilst singing the song). 

Eric Hutchinson's Pure Fiction is, like much of Hutchinson's work, pretty incredible start to finish. One of the singles, "Tell the World" kicks off the album with a great energy, followed by "A Little More," the power-pop track that acted as another single for the album. After that, the album starts flipping between slow songs and blues-rock jams. "Sun Goes Down" is a fictional account of a man haunted by postcards from his runaway ex. It tells a clear story that is easy to picture from the lyrics. On Pure Fiction, Hutchinson displays his abilities as a writer of story songs, his ability to move smoothly between genres and sounds, and his prowess as a musician in general. 

Miniature Tigers crafted another near-perfect album with Cruel Runnings. There are a lot of '80s synth sounds on this one as well as the Rob Cantor entry, because I guess that's what you did in 2014. Miniature Tigers craft a fantastic synth-laden album, with Brand's lyrics as perfect as they can get. "Used to be the S***" features a fantastic line "Our love was warm like a VHS tape of Aladdin//Now our love's so cold//laser disc of Cruel Intentions." "Swimming Pool Blues" is a perfect pop track. The perfect end-credits song "Oblivious" might be my favorite on the album. Incidentally, not only does "Oblivious" sound like an end-credits song, it also acted as the credits song for the film Sleeping With Other People, for whom Miniature Tigers act as something of a house band. I love most Miniature Tigers albums, but this one is distinctive from their first three for certain. 

We're down to the top two. I had a lot of trouble picking between these two, but my final runner-up is Stockholm by Chrissie Hynde. 

Hynde's songwriting on this album is fantastic. She wrote almost all of the songs with Björn Yttling (of Peter, Björn, and John) who also produced the album. The remaining two songs were penned with Joakim Åhlund (Caesars). They wrote together in Stockholm for two years, inspiring the title of the album. Hynde stated that she was drawn to the music scene in Stockholm, just as she had been to London's punk scene in the '70s. She also said that she attempted to get Yttling and Åhlund to join a band with her, but this was all she could get by way of a compromise. 

Yttling evidently helped in the lyric-writing process by suggesting a title and challenging Hynde to come up with lyrics. He suggested "Dark Sunglasses," and though Hynde thought it cliched, she couldn't argue with the results. I played "Dark Sunglasses" on repeat until those around me were being driven crazy and yet I can still listen to it without it seeming stale to me. I ended up naming it my single of the year for 2014."You or No One" is a romantic tune about finding your person but it's also an earworm. "Down the Wrong Way" is another great song, featuring guitar work from Neil Young. Tennis great John McEnroe contributes guitar to "A Plan Too Far."

Stockholm is highly under-rated in my opinion, as it might be my favorite album Hynde has worked on since Last of the Independents. But another album just barely edged it out of the top spot.

Most people close to me think they understand what kind of music I listen to- power pop, sunshine pop, classic rock, something like that. The truth is, even I'm not sure what exactly I like, and that's how I ended up with my favorite album from 2014 being Tyranny by Julian Casablancas + the Voidz.

Isn't it strange that not one album by The Strokes has made it onto my lists so far, and yet this dark, weird album is my album of the year? For sure! I love The Strokes. For some reason, this Voidz album just hit me the right way at the right time. I may have been in a dark place, I may have been more open to challenging sounds, I'm really not sure what the perfect storm was. Maybe it's that this album is just really good. 

Tyranny doesn't play by any set of rules. There's a throwback quality to it, but it still sounds incredibly modern and new. It's harder than anything else Casablancas has released, yet the guitar can also be bright and cheerful somehow. It's totally unrestrained and there doesn't seem to be any pressure for it to be one thing or another. The freedom of expression and to experiment with sounds on the two Voidz albums definitely contributed to The Strokes' 2020 accomplishment The New Abnormal

The first single released from Tyranny was "Human Sadness," which features a sample of Mozart's "Requiem in D Minor." "Human Sadness" is almost 11 minutes long, and is a roller-coaster ride of sounds. The sample is made more haunting through the use of effects. The bassline comes in, followed by Julian Casablancas' vocals which are simultaneously smooth and rough somehow. Through use of effects, his voice sometimes sounds like another synthesizer line. Jarring noises will cut in at seemingly random times, but rather than taking away from the song, they add to it, and enable the instrumentals to break into a more aggressive, jarring tone themselves. "Human Sadness" is actually about Casablancas' relationship with his father, which was a rocky one. 

The second single is the one I preferred, "Where No Eagles Fly." The addictive bassline reminds me of the bassline/verse melody from The Long Blondes' "Swallow Tattoo" (and yes, that's a hill I'm willing to die on). "Where No Eagles Fly" shows off the ability of this music to still be catchy, despite the many varied elements and experimentation. 

"Father Electricity" features a Latin/Caribbean hook. The opening track "Take Me in Your Army" contains heavy synths and vocal effects that create a sense of foreboding. More than any other track, "Army" has a sense of nostalgia to it as well. There is a track called "Nintendo Blood," which could have been the title of the whole album and it would have made sense. 

In 2014 I found my lovely cat, Cowboy.
When this album came out, I was very much keeping to myself. I got an email about it because I was a fan of The Strokes, and on the website they were offering a digital download for $3.87. I downloaded it immediately and was very impressed. I wouldn't even say it was a challenging listen, although you can hear different elements every time you hear the tracks. There's something about it that I find compelling. It is creepy. I played it at my Halloween party the following year, surprising my best friend who didn't expect my sunshine pop tastes to be compatible with Tyranny. She and I got to see The Voidz at El Club in Detroit. Not only was the venue awesome, the show was too. 

I love what the band were able to do on this album. The production is fantastic, the band are positively perfect together, and the songs are weird and wonderful. 

Let's check out that leaderboard.

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2015!

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2013


I only have four runners-up for 2013, but it's genuinely been one of the most difficult years to rank. So many albums in 2013 were able to warm or console my damaged soul, so the connection I have to them is incredibly deep. My original ranking for the albums of 2013 is once again not really in the same order as it is now because the impact of some of the albums has changed over time. I'm probably going to get more personal in this article than I've ever gotten about this year in my life, so...apologies I guess.

I gave Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend a hard time at first, but it might be my favorite of their albums now. In my defense, there were a lot of really good albums that year. I think some of the songs were just slow-burners though. Like you don't realize until months later that "Finger Back" has tunneled its weird way into your head. 

Until Modern Vampires, Vampire Weekend had been self-produced. For this album, however, they brought in producer Ariel Rechtshaid (formerly of The Hippos) who would go on to produce most tracks for their 2019 album Father of the Bride, and Haim's Grammy-nominated 2020 album Women in Music Pt. III. He brings a more commercial sound that is still indie enough to not drive away their old fanbase. The men in the band also spent some time apart, working on side projects before reconvening for Modern Vampires. They wanted the album to sound original and attempted to reject anything that sounded like their first two albums.

Modern Vampires of the City is a good album. It's different. The pitch-shifting they did made it interesting, Koenig's songwriting is on-point, and it shows a kind of maturity greater than that of their first two albums. 

My third and fourth favorite albums from 2013 are a tie. They are both very good albums for entirely different reasons. 

Electric by The Pet Shop Boys is one of the best electronic dance albums of all time in my opinion. I was disappointed by Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and I don't even know why I ended up buying Electric, but it was everything I wanted from electronic music that year. Everyone I've forced to listen to it has also really enjoyed it (or that's what they've told me with a knife to their throats. JK).

Electric was produced by Stuart Price, the producer behind their next two albums and The Killers' Day and Age. The Pet Shop Boys told Price that they wanted to make a dance record. He in turn tried to make every track sound euphoric and fresh, which I think he succeeded in doing. Electric reached #3 on the U.K. Albums Charts and #26 here in the U.S., making it the most successful Pet Shop Boys album in 20 years.

Apart from sounding great, the album features an unreliable narrator ("Love is a Bourgeois Construct"), an amazing and surprising Bruce Springsteen cover ("The Last to Die"), and a song about the pure, joyous love of music ("Vocal"). Despite the 20+ years of work by The Pet Shop Boys, Electric sounds new and vibrant.

She and Him released their third album of original material, aptly named Volume 3. Volume 3 is peak retro-pop. She and Him's first two albums were great, but this one was far more refined and complex, yet somehow also more accessible and relevant to the present day. The most interesting cover of the three on the album is "Sunday Girl," a cover of a Blondie song from Parallel Lines. Lead singer Zooey Deschanel's original material is flawless also. My favorite original tracks include "I Could've Been Your Girl," "I've Got Your Number, Son," and "Snow Queen." "I've Got Your Number, Son" is about learning that your significant other is a bit self-centered, and stringing you along while they figure out what they want. Not saying that sums up my 2013 but does. On the other end of the spectrum, "I Could've Been Your Girl" is almost (and quite possibly is actually) like the ending of the same relationship, realizing that they could have had a good relationship, but for whatever reason it wasn't what the guy wanted. 

The final two albums are almost a tie also, but since there can be only one on the leaderboard, I have to pick the one that just slightly pushed ahead in terms of relevance to my life.

Thus, the final runner-up has to be Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara. Heartthrob was originally my album of the year for 2013, but it had almost the whole year to marinate and I was still probably holding onto some of the "love-will-triumph" ideals of this album. 

Commercially, Heartthrob has been the most successful Tegan and Sara album to date in the U.S., reaching #3 on the Billboard Charts and #1 on the Alternative Charts. This is probably thanks in part to the #1 U.S. Dance hit, "Closer," which also received the "Glee bump." "Closer" has also been the band's best-performing single to date here in the U.S.

It is also just incredibly good. Tegan and Sara transitioned into '80s pop seamlessly, but continued to make the same sad, lovesick music that was expected of them. The great Greg Kurstin (whose name I'm sure you're tired of hearing by now) was brought on for the majority of the album, lending his magic touch. 

The aforementioned "Closer" kicks off the album with a punch. Co-written with producer Greg Kurstin, for once the twins are singing almost seductively about intimacy with a romantic partner. As the lyrics say, "It's not just all physical." I think the best part about the song is their promise to cherish this partner. Tegan Quin told Rolling Stone "all I intended was to write something sweet that reminded the listener of a time before complicated relationships, drama and heartbreak. I was writing about my youth, a time when we got closer by linking arms and walking down our school hallway, or talked all night on the telephone about every thought or experience we'd ever had." Like "Closer," "Drove Me Wild" is a nostalgic tale of a more innocent time. There's something incredibly personal about "Drove Me Wild." The imagery makes it more real. The concept of nostalgic tales of love would be fully realized on 2019's Hey, I'm Just Like You

"Goodbye, Goodbye" explores breakups in the age of text and social media, but also features the heartbreaking line that always cut me to the core, "You let me try//knowing there was nothing I could do//to change you." I'm not sure who I should feel worse for in that line, the narrator who feels misled when someone implied that they could change, or the recipient of the message who the narrator was attempting to change, only to get discouraged when they couldn't. I know who my heart does break for, but that is colored a bit by my own life around that time.

"I Was a Fool For Love" has to be my favorite on the album. I adore the metaphors throughout, as if they were some sort of knight in shining armor for the subject of the song, but I also love the piano and love the way the ladies' voices are produced. Most of all though, I enjoy the overall message. I was a fool for love. I stuck around when I shouldn't have, I tried to protect and save someone who didn't even care about my feelings. Hearing someone else verbalize that is very cathartic. So many breakup songs are about hating that person or missing that person, but this one is just about how foolish and broken you can feel after getting out of a relationship you shouldn't have invested so much in. The only song that came close around this time was "I Knew You Were Trouble" by Taylor Swift, but even that one is just about making a bad decision. "I Was a Fool For Love" is about really investing yourself into someone emotionally even though you probably shouldn't have, not just getting involved with someone who is emotionally unavailable. Much like "Goodbye, Goodbye," a big part of the plot in this one involves the fact that they kept convincing themselves that it was going to get better. The Quins based this one on "Umbrella" and "Unfaithful" by Rhianna. Greg Kurstin's ability to recognize what sound was possible for it was the primary reason he was chosen as the album's main producer.

"I'm Not Your Hero" ends up being about alienation not in the romantic way so much as alienated from peers in the music or political communities. Musically, critics compared it to "L.E.S. Atristes" by Santigold and "Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap. Another comparison it saw was to Fleetwood Mac. Originally, it was much slower, so I'm curious as to what it would have sounded like slower and with the synths replaced by a droning Lindsay Buckingham guitar part. Co-written with fun.'s Jack Antonoff, "How Come You Don't Want Me" is a song written primarily by Sara Quin. From my perspective, it seems to be about a low self-esteem driving a lover away and the narrator then feeling even more insecure when their lover is able to easily move on. I don't know if that's the correct interpretation, but it feels that way. I think "I Couldn't Be Your Friend" should have closed the album. Sonically, it might not be the obvious choice, but there's something very final about realizing you can't be friends with an ex that screams "end of the album!" to me. 

Even though "I Was a Fool For Love" is a ballad also, "Love They Say" felt like more of a ballad for me. Also, holy crap...this song was bad news for me. The only song that made me romanticize a bad situation as much as this one was "True Love" by P!nk and Lily Rose (Allen). This song was my mantra for every time it seemed like the relationship was going to pull through. "Forget the bad times! There's nothing love can't do!" "Now I'm All Messed Up" is another heartbreaking tale of abandonment and of imagining who your beloved is seeing now. If "How Come You Don't Want Me" is Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?," this song is "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." I always write off "Shock to Your System" until I hear it again and remember that it's about someone  remarkably damaged from a former relationship. Sara Quin has stated that she watched a great deal of movies during the writing process, and that Drive (2011) was a big inspiration. 

This album takes on love from many different angles. More than that though, it takes on relationships from many angles. That's why it feels one way when you're trying to repair something and another way when you're bemoaning the loss of a relationship. Stay tuned for my article on the music that makes up toxic relationships. It will of course contain this album and the next one.

You can't make this up. I took this next album into work to listen to for my review the morning after my breakup became official official. I normally save the personal stuff for the end on the album of the year itself, but this one is really hard to separate, so bear with me. 

In 2013, of Montreal went for a new sound again with Lousy With Sylvianbriar. Frontperson Kevin Barnes has always been known to switch up their sound regularly, but this time was a little bit different. As I've said in earlier articles, the band's early work was very independent-sounding. It saw a lot of comparisons to The Kinks and then the sound changed a couple more times, became electronic, dance-y, experimental. The album that came directly before this one, Paralytic Stalks, was a complete psychedelic soundscape. It was weird and jarring. It was unclear where the band were even going to go from there. 

...and then Lousy With Sylvianbriar came out and it was a relief that the sound was back to a normal realm. Sylvianbriar is incredibly acoustic, but beyond that, it is just excellent. Barnes was separating from their wife of ten years, the mother of their child (Barnes is nonbinary and genderqueer and goes by him/her/their pronouns, so even if it makes it a little harder to read, I'm going to use them/they/their out of respect). Barnes tends to have full creative control of their projects- writing, performing, producing, and in many cases firing the entire band Brendon Urie-style to suit their needs (or whims. I'm not in the band but I also don't judge).

Keep in mind that my definition of "acoustic" in this instance is clouded by how incredibly electronic and experimental the preceding album had been. Barnes continues their habit of being very verbose, to the point that the verboseness is more a measure of the band's genre than any musical element is.

"Obsidian Currents" contains heavy use of the pedal steel and is one of the slower songs on the album. "Belle Glade Missionaries" is faster and utilizes a walking guitar line, along with very old-school country percussion. The lyrics are some of the most poignant on the album, but more on that in a moment. Even slower than "Obsidian Currents" are "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" and "Raindrop in My Skull," the latter being possibly the only of Montreal song without Barnes as the lead vocalist. 

Barnes drew a great deal of inspiration from Sylvia Plath whilst working on the album, and "Colossus" is an example of her influence. More specifically, "Colossus" describes Plath's life. Barnes also offers up the idea that "your family are just losers," which he describes as a surmountable fact rather than an insult, as if accepting this statement is the first stage to moving on. "Triumph of Disintegration" is a track that acts as more advice for the audience. 

"She Ain't Speakin' Now" is one of the most simple premises on the album with some rocking guitar and percussion. "She Ain't Speakin' Now" was written when Barnes' wife and daughter were both incredibly sick with the flu.

"Hegira Émigré" is one of the most up-tempo songs on the album, strangely finding itself close to the close of the album between two slower songs.

Like I said, it's difficult to talk about this album without putting it through the filter of my own experiences, so let's just dive into that.

Taken in my ex's car, 2013.
In 2013, I was attempting to write reviews for most albums within a week of their release so I preordered a lot of albums I thought I would like and then tried to write the articles as fast as I could. There was no way this one wouldn't have gotten reviewed. The style of music Barnes chose for Lousy With Sylvianbriar was exactly my cup of tea. Considering when I listened to the album for the first time, I was also far too keen to get my feelings out (but in a far less personal way than this here). As I said earlier, I was going fresh through my breakup the day I first listened to this album, yet I still don't think that's why it hit so hard. I say that because certain parts of the album hit me in September of 2013 while other parts didn't strike me or resonate until months or even years later.

"Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" is probably one of the first songs that struck me. There are breakup songs about missing the person and breakup songs that are kind of a middle finger to an ex, and then there's "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit." Even the title sounds vitriolic. There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of years about toxic people and cutting them out of your life. Not only was this one ahead of the trend, it speaks of a toxic spirit. It condemns their entire soul's toxicity. This person isn't just rotten to the core, they are poisonous from the roots up. I'm going to have to present almost the full lyrics because they are incredibly well-written and were poignant to me in my situation.

What I recall
Remember best is the insanity
And the clatter

Misapprehensions are
Killing you but not
Fast enough to really matter

The flume of your struggle
Is flooded with sorrow and
Poisons everybody near it
I'm not a patron of yours anymore
Don't want to hear it
The sirens of your toxic spirit

Of your addictions and shiftiness
Inherited from your father
I know you struggle to keep them in check
But at this point why even bother

The flume of your struggle
Is flooded with sorrow and
Stifles everybody near it
I'm not a patron of yours anymore
Don't want to hear it
The sirens of your toxic spirit

What friendships you have left
Do not derive from love
They're just a warped form of charity
I've wounded you and you've wounded you too
At least we can feel good about the parity

"Sirens" isn't a hate letter, but it is a memory of a relationship you are glad to be out of. It's a message to that person that you will not be back, that you will not talk to them again. It's a sigh of relief that "I'm not a patron of yours anymore" and a statement that because of that fact, the narrator doesn't want to hear anything the antagonist has to say. So many of those statements seemed to apply to my situation, right down to the verse about "what friendships you have left."

The overall mood of "Colossus" (and the album as a whole) was a familiar one, but the idea that "my thoughts go dark and all out of focus//I have no peace in my mind" rang true as I suffered through some of the most confusing times of my life. 

"Raindrop in My Skull" is a fairly straightforward song about depression, even if it's not about your own depression. Barnes has a knack for expressing their mental health it a relatable and poetic form, and describing it as a "raindrop in my skull" that they're "too messed up now to get it out" might be the simplest way to describe depression I've ever heard. 

On that note, "Triumph of Disintegration" describes a time in which "the one thing that is good about me//Has begun to express itself in malicious ways." I'm going to need to point out quite a few things in these lyrics also. It kicks off with a brutally frank and explicit line about the last ten days being awful that really expresses the emotions of having a stretch of bad days. The lyrics go on to say "You had to forgive your enemy cause it was making you psychotic//To keep fighting him inside of your head." That line falls somewhere between good advice and just a brutal circumstance in which your hatred of someone is actually effecting the way you interact with other, unassociated people. But the song isn't even close to explaining that point, only a few lines later saying "I had to make myself a monster just to feel something ugly enough to be true." I related to that line in a sense that I will explain to you in a convoluted way. You know how people have theorized that the "Karen" real-life trope is caused by women who feel disenfranchised and want to make up for it by finding their power somewhere else? It's kind of like that. As a victim of emotional abuse and torment, I found myself being ruder and meaner to people who probably didn't deserve it, just so I could brush my sadness away with rage for a moment. More on that topic in a few. The final line I want to discuss is the unusually-structured chorus, "What is the flaw in just running away?//Running away fixes everything, how can I why should I stay?" Fight or flight can't be applied to every moment of your life. Being able to daydream about packing it all up and disappearing is absolutely a relief. Of course, the implication is that this would be no good at all, as you will eventually have to come back and fix the problems anyway.

That's a lot about a couple of songs. Let me tell you about the one that really changed my thought process a couple of years later. 

"Belle Glade Missionaries" has a few lines in it that I thought were fitting at the time. "It's your dysphoric mania that makes you so likable//And everybody wanna save you//Save you just for themself" is a front-runner. A couple of years after my breakup, there is a particular line that stood out to me- "all the evil in the universe//there are no victims, only participants." You see, the further I got from that relationship, the more I realized how messed up he had really been toward me, and the more I began to feel sorry for myself and the more I felt victimized. That line changed everything. Now I'm not saying that you can never feel sorry for yourself or that you can't accept and process the fact that you were victimized. For me though, that line was about owning up to the fact that you remained in the situation, and more importantly, that you did things that weren't so nice to other people as a way to regain your power. Yanno, that Karen stuff I was talking about. There are victims of evil all the time, but the kind of evil Barnes seems to be speaking of is within a relationship. The narrator is describing or speaking to a particular person. Sometimes it's healthy to realize that even if you are the victim of physical or emotional abuse, you have the power to change your situation. If that's not helpful to you, just ignore it. I'm not trying to victim blame, it's just that it helped me find my own power again.

Okay, that's about enough of that personal stuff, please show me the leaderboard so I can go back into hiding.

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2014.