What I’m Listening to Now – April 2017


Song of the Month

“Cherry Blossom” by ALA.NI

Podcasts of the Month

Best of the Left Progressives Fight on Multiple Fronts

I hear too much infighting about the best way to conduct the resistance, so it’s good to hear this podcast the multiple fronts on which progressives are fighting for our country and our future.

Sound OpinionsMavis Staples

An insightful interview with the musical legend.

The Memory PalaceTemple

I’ve always enjoyed visiting the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Turns out that the temple is not as old as I thought nor has it been in the Met for as long as I’d imagined either.  The stories of why it was built and how it ended up in New York are equally fascinating.

Ben Frankin’s World Paul Revere’s Ride Through History

Four scholars explore the history of Paul Revere and why we remember him today.

99% InvisibleSounds Natural

Viewers of nature documentaries expect that everything in the film comes directly from nature, but having microphones in the right place to capture sounds is so difficult and dangerous that most animal sounds are produced by foley artists.

StarTalk Radio – Baseball: Physics at the Plate

A baseball player, physicists, and comedians join together to discuss baseball at SXSW.  Good things happen

Planet MoneyGeorgetown, Lousiana

The story of a Louisiana town where many of the residents are descendants of 272 slaves sold to fund Georgetown University.

Albums of the Month

Artist: Charly Bliss
Album: Guppy
Release Date: April 21, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Glitter,” “Black Hole,” and “Ruby”

Thoughts: The Brooklyn power pop quartet bring back a mid-90s sound reminiscent of  Letters to Cleo and Velocity Girl.  Eva Hendricks sings a bit nasally over fuzzed-out guitars and drums with lyrics that aren’t anywhere as sweet as they’re sung.  It’s a great throwback but having lived through it all the first time around, I’d prefer something new.
Rating: ***


Artist: Future Islands
Album: The Far Field
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Beauty of the Road,” “Cave,” and “Shadows”

Thoughts: I was not familiar with the Baltimore-based synthpop outfit, but the reviews of the album were good so I thought I’d give it a shot.  The sound is very 80s, reminiscent of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, but Samuel Herring’s vocals overlaying the synths are more growly than romantic.  Once again, I’m feeling that I’ve heard this all before. The highlight is the duet with Debbie Harry on “Shadows.”
Rating: **1/2


Artist: Alexandra Savior
Album: Belladonna of Sadness
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Thoughts: This debut from the Portland, OR singer-songwriter features moody crooning over 60’s style jazz-pop.  It’s a little bit reminiscent of Fiona Apple, not to mention umpteen singers from the swinging sixties.  There’s too much polish on this album and the raw talent Savior has is unable to shine through.
Rating: **


Artist: The New Pornographers
Album: Whiteout Conditions
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “High Ticket Attractions”

Thoughts: I’m a long-time fan of The New Pornographers and I’m disappointed by their latest release.  There’s nothing new about it as the reliance on synthesizers seems to just water down their traditional sound rather then expand into new territories.  The emotion and variety of previous albums.  Perhaps the absence of Dan Bejar contributes to the lack of balance and feeling of incompleteness.
Rating: **


ArtistGorillaz
Album: Humans
Release Date: April 28, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Ascension” (feat. Vince Staples),”Momentz” (feat. De La Soul), “Let Me Out” (feat. Mavis Staples and Pusha T), and “We Got the Power” (feat. Jenny Beth)

Thoughts: The band of animated characters is joined by an army of guest artists on this hip-hop, indie pop, electronic dance party album.  It’s all over the place and delightfully strange but there’s a little something for everyone.
Rating: ***1/2

That’s April!  If there’s something I should listen to in May, let me know in the comments.

Music Discoveries: Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir’s Top 8 Albums


I’m switching things up this month. Instead of focusing on the musical output of one band or artist, I decided to listen to all the albums on a list of favorite albums from one artist.  That artist is Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir of the duo My Bubba, she being the Icelandic Bubba with her Swedish partner My Larsdotter.  My Bubba have appeared in my Song of the Week posts on two occasions for their tracks “Poem Found in the Pocket of an Amazon” and “Big Bad Good” and the latter song also made my favorite songs of 2016 list.

I found 7 of the 8 albums on streaming services. So here is my venture into Icelandic sometimes folkish, sometimes jazzy, often minimalist, and always vocal oriented popular music

 

ArtistBjörk Guðmundsdóttir & Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar
AlbumGlíng-Gló (1990)
Favorite Tracks: “Kata rokkar,”  “Tondeleyo,”  and “Börnin við tjörnina”
Thoughts: I suspect this isn’t for everyone, but if you find the idea of Björk crooning jazz standards in her native tongue appealing, then this album is for you.
Rating: ***1/2


ArtistEmilíana Torrini
AlbumFisherman’s Woman (2005)
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing Brings Me Down,”  “Today Has Been OK”
Thoughts: If Björk’s voice doesn’t do it for you, Emilíana Torrini’s is more accessible, both ethereal and emotive.  Her style reminds me of the English folk  rock movement of the 1970s but these tracks are accompanied by minimalist guitar.
Rating: ***1/2


ArtistÓlöf Arnalds
AlbumVið Og Við (2007)
Favorite Tracks: “Í Nýju Húsi”
Thoughts: Troubadour-style performances of traditional Icelandic music.  Again, I’m reminded of the folk revival styles of the 60s & 70s, but in Icelandic.
Rating: ***


Artist: Sigurður Guðmundsson og Memfismafían
AlbumOft spurði ég mömmu (2008)
Favorite Tracks: “Lady Fish And Chips” and “Veðrið er herfilegt”
Thoughts: Another retro album described as “old Icelandic popular tunes,” but here “old” sounds like pop songs of the 30s to 50s.  And it’s pretty clear that one of them is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which sounds more sexy than creepy in Icelandic.  I can’t find anything on the web about this album in English, but the vocalist has a Frank Sinatra vibe, and the whole album swings.
Rating: ***1/2


ArtistMúgíson 
AlbumHaglél (2011)
Thoughts: This album apparently resonated strongly with the people of Iceland, but I’m not as impressed.  Of course, I know nothing of the lyrics, but musically it sounds like 70s pop songs with maybe a little 90s angst.
Rating: **


ArtistValdimar 
AlbumUndraland (2010)
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: Cheerful indie pop. The brass section moves this from mundane to a bit interesting.
Rating:**1/2


Artistamiina
AlbumFantômas (2016)
Favorite Tracks: “Simplon Express” and “Entrepots de Bercy”
Thoughts: This was composed as a score for a 100-year-old silent film, and it’s a beautiful work of minimalist post-rock.  Definitely worth listening to if that’s your bag.
Rating:  ****

 

That’s my music discovery for the month, let me know if there’s something I should be listening to in May by leaving a comment!

What I’m Listening to Now – March 2017


It’s more than halfway through April so it’s about time I get this post up for March.

Podcasts of the Month

99% InvisibleChurch, Sanctuary part 1

Sanctuary churches have been in the news.  Here is how it works in practice.

BackStoryTaking it to the Streets

A history of mass protests in the United States.

Best of the LeftLiving in an empire of lies (Propaganda)

Stepping back from the headline news and taking a deep dive into the history of propaganda in the United States.

To the Best of Our Knowledge – Every Time You Troll Me, A Scientist Gets Her Due

Emily Temple-Wood decided the best way to get back at misogynist trolls on the internet is to write a new entry about a woman scientists on Wikipedia every time they attack.

RadiolabShots Fired, part 1

An investigation into police shootings of innocent or unarmed individuals and the networks of the families and friends left behind.

Fresh Air – An ‘Intimate Portrait’ Of Dorothy Day, The Catholic Activist With A Bohemian Past

An interview with Kate Hennessy, author of a new biography of her grandmother, Dorothy Day.

Song of the Month

Frank Turner adds another song to the rapidly growing Resistance Mixtape, “The Sand in the Gears.”

Albums of the Month


Artist: The Feelies
Album: In Between
Release Date: 24 February 2017
Favorite Tracks: “When to Go,” “Stay the Course” and “Turn Back Time”
Rating: ***

The Feelies are a band that seems to have always been around, but this is only their 6th album in 40+ years.  They managed to both influence R.E.M. and be beneficiaries of R.E.M.’s popularity in the 1980s.  The jangle pop of this album is reminiscent of the 80s, not in the 80s Nostalgia Industry way but in the type of music you’d hear your older sibling’s cool best friend listening to in the car in the 80s.  The songs appear laid back, but grow in lyrical and emotional intensity.


Artist: The Shins
AlbumHeartworms
Release Date: 10 March 2017
Favorite Tracks: “So Now What” and “Cherry Hearts”
Rating: ***

The Shins return with their typical high harmonies and wall of sound arrangements.  This album appears to do some genre hopping – ska to EDM to psychedelia – but all within The Shins’ framework.  Definitely a good return to form after a long 5-year hiatus.


ArtistPeter Mulvey
Album: Are You Listening
Release Date: 25 March 2017
Favorite Tracks: “D.I.A.,” “Are You Listening,” “Just Before the War,” “The Details,” and “Oh, The Rain”
Rating: ****

Peter Mulvey is who I’d want to be as a singer-songwriter. On this new album produced by Ani DiFranco, Mulvey’s bass voice resonates and his profound lyrics are full of thought and emotion.  Definitely an album you’ll want to check out.

Music Discovery: “Weird Al” Yankovic


I need a good laugh these days, who doesn’t, so “Weird Al” Yankovic is my Music Discovery this month, just in time for April Fool’s Day. As a song parodist, Weird Al has had an unexpectedly long career. Listening back to all of his albums has the element of opening a time capsule. There were times when I thought “Oh yeah, I remember this song he’s parodying when it was a hit” or found myself chuckling at a reference to a pop culture entity of time gone by. But Weird Al is more than novelty music and a lot of his work has a surprisingly long shelf life. Here are three reasons I think why:

1. He’s a talented musician. Weird Al and his accompanying band are accomplished artists who put as much work into their music as any other popular artist. He’s also been able to keep up with the time, taking styles that didn’t exist when he first started, such as grunge, gangsta rap, and boy bands.
2. He really has a creative way with words that make the lyrics worth listening to again and again.
3. As a parodist, rather than a satirist, he is rarely making reference to current events. Of course, this could also be a criticism of how apolitical Weird Al’s work is, but I just acknowledge that Weird Al is a great parodist while others are great satirists. Besides, we really need funny songs about food, movies, and direct marketing infomercials.

Having listened to all of Weird Al, I’ll say that his own songs and style parodies stand up better than direct song parodies, but a number of them thrive as well.  Here is Weird Al at his best:

Weird Al’s” Five Best Albums

  1. “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984) – this was my first Weird Al album so there was a lot of nostalgia listening to this one
  2. Off the Deep End (1992) – this came out when I was in college.  Weird Al had been out of the picture for a while, but coming back with an album where he had a big hit parodying Nirvana made him cool again.
  3. Bad Hair Day (1996) – the mid-90s was a time when big time musicians were taking themselves way too seriously so this album is particularly rich.
  4. Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – may be one of the strongest albums track-by-track of Weird Al’s career.
  5. Mandatory Fun (2014) – Weird Al once again makes a big splash releasing 8 videos in 8 days and what may be his last album (but not last work altogether!)

“Weird Al’s” Top 20 Songs of All Time

This list doesn’t include any of Weird Al’s polka parodies which are their own category of brilliance.

“Another One Rides the Bus” – the lyrics are true to any regular bus rider’s experience

“Eat It” – Weird Al’s first monster hit is also something I can relate to as a parent with fussy eaters.

“Buy Me a Condo” – I always loved this reggae song of an upwardly-mobile rastaman.

 

“Like a Surgeon” – the lyrics are great but you also have to admire how the song keeps rhythm to the EKG monitor the entire time.

“Yoda” – not for the last time Weird Al sets the plot of a blockbuster film to music and creates a masterpiece.

“Fat” – Michael Jackson was very good to Weird Al in the early days.  The wordplay in this fat anthem is particularly strong.

“Smells Like Nirvana” – This may be the first time Weird Al parodied a song to make fun of the band that played it, and it’s hilarious.

“You Don’t Love Me Anymore” – The best of Weird Al’s original love ballads.

“Bohemian Polka” – polkas are always a highlight of any Weird Al album and this is the one time a polka is dedicated to parodying a single song.

“Amish Paradise” – It takes Weird Al to think that gangsta rap and the Amish people needed to be joined together.

“Pancreas” – it is an important organ.

“Everything You Know is Wrong” – things get weird because parodying They Might Be Giants is nigh on impossible since you just end up with a They Might Be Giants’ song. So I guess this is an excellent homage?

“The Saga Begins” – take a mediocre, overplayed song and an awful, overhyped movie and you get something that transcends both towards absolute brilliance.

“Bob” – +1 for parodying Bob Dylan so well.  +2 for doing it entirely in palindromes.

“White and Nerdy” – pretty much the official theme song of Weird Al and his most devoted fans.

“Don’t Download This Song” – perhaps Al at his most political, satirizing the moral panic of the music business and the dreck of charity songs.

“Perform This Way” – kind of the essence of Lady Gaga, only funnier.

“Foil” – Weird Al switches topics mid-song and it works so perfectly.

“Mission Statement” – the hippies of the 60s became the vapid corporate execs of today.

“Tacky” – brilliant parody, amazing video.

Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red


Artist: A Tribe Called Red
Opener: YVNG PAVL and DJ Big Bear of CLLCTV BOSTON
Venue: The Sinclair, Cambridge, MA
Date: 18 March 2017

It’s been a long time since I posted a concert review because it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concert.  But I couldn’t miss A Tribe Called Red, one of my favorite musical acts to emerge in recent years.  The three DJs based in Ottawa, Ontario mix electronic music with First Nations’ chants and drums in a style called Electric Pow Wow.  Their music is danceable but lyrically is politically and socially charged with messages from contemporary native communities.

The opening act featured YVNG PAVL and DJ Big Bear of CLLCTV Boston who spun an eclectic mix of dance tracks that got people moving on the floor.  The two DJs worked together at a small soundboard often crossing one another’s hands in a surprisingly intimate manner.  CLLCTV is definitely something I’ll be checking out in the future.

DJ NDN,  Bear Witness, and 2oolman took the stage around 10 pm with a simple set-up on one long table.  Projected behind them were repeating clips of movies, cartoons, and perhaps performances on tv variety shows depicting clichéd and stereotypical Native American images in a way of reappropriation of the “Hollywood Indian.” Unlike A Tribe Called Red albums where the musical tracks are distinct pieces, in the live performance they ran as one long and highly infectious dance mix.  Periodically a pair of dancers would come on stage, received enthusiastically by the audience, performing a mix of native dances and breakdancing. Their clothing similarly mixed traditional native dress with African-American hip hop styles.

 

The set seemed to be over soon after it begun, but checking the time I realized that nearly two hours had passed.  I long wished to travel to Ottawa to experience the Electronic Pow Wow, but I’m glad that for one night it came closer to home.  It was definitely a performance worth seeing.

A side note, this is the first time I attended a concert at The Sinclair.  It’s an intimate venue, but while small it didn’t feel crushingly crowded despite a sizeable crowd.  There’s a large standing room only space on the floor in front of the stage with a smaller mezzanine with balconies on the sides.  Looking at the list of upcoming performances it looks like The Sinclair has taken over the dearly departed T.T. the Bear’s role of offering famed but not superstar performers from a diversity of genres a place to play in Cambridge.

What I’m Listening to Now – February 2017


Better late than never, here is the report of what I was listening to in February, a short month punctuated by a delightful vacation where I mostly listened to the laughter of my children.

Podcasts of the Month

Fresh AirThe History of US Intervention

A discussion of the United States involvement with the rest of the world from isolationism to the world’s police to the more sinister activities of imperialism and corporate hegemony.

Jacobin RadioWe Can Do Better

What is capitalism, what role does it play in our lives, and is it really the best we can do?

To The Best of Our KnowledgeA Borderless World

Borders and immigration are a key issue of our times.  These stories illustrate how the idea of borders is becoming an outdated one.

BackStoryWorld Apart

The divide between urban and rural populations is one of the major causes of political disagreement in the US today, and one that goes back throughout the history of the United States.

This American LifeIt’s Working Out Very Nicely

Stories of the confusion and struggle that arose in the wake of Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Twenty Thousand HertzAudio Descriptions

Movies have a track of audio description intended to help the visually impaired and this podcast describes the art of narration and how audio descriptions can benefit all viewers.

Decode DCHow cops can legally take your car, home, or cash

The chilling law of civil asset forfeiture that allows police to take property from suspects even if they’re not convicted or even charged with crimes.

Have You Heard?You’re Fired

All about why school turnarounds – a theory of fixing low-performing schools by firing the teachers and staff that has widespread, bipartisan support – is an idea that doesn’t work, and what actually does.

Song of the Month

Chicago singer-songwriter Zeshan Bagewadi (aka Zeshan B) provides a powerful interpretation of the 1970 protest anthem “Cryin’ in the Streets” by  George Perkins that ties together generations of protest for justice and equality in the United States.  Learn more about the song The World interview.

 

Albums of the Month

Artist: Tinariwen
Album: Elwan
Release Date: 10 February 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Sastanàqqàm,” Ténéré Tàqqàl,” “Assàwt,” and “Nànnuflày”
Thoughts: The Northern Africa Desert Blues band from Mali’s most recent release includes guest appearances by indie artists like Kurt Vile, but the band itself is the stand out performer of this collection of melodic, resonant, and politically-charged tunes.
Rating: ***1/2


 

Artist: Clap! Clap!
Album: A Thousand Skies
Release Date: 17 February 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Ar-Raqis” and “Elephant Seranade”
Thoughts: Clap! Clap! is a project of Italian producer Cristiano Crisci, who creates instrumental dance tracks relying heavily on indigenous percussion.  An earlier Clap! Clap! recording, Tayi Bebba,  made my 2014 favorite albums list.  While not as strong as its predecessor, A Thousand Skies is equally enjoyable as festive ambient music for a party or for getting through a gray day at work
Rating: ***1/2


Artist: Visible Cloaks
AlbumReassemblage
Release Date: 17 February 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Bloodstream”, “Place,” “Valve (Revisited)”
Thoughts: Somewhere between Phillip Glass, a church organist, and a lullaby lies this lovely collection of ambient tunes.
Rating: ***


Artist: Molly Burch
AlbumPlease Be Mine
Release Date: 17 February 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Fool”
Thoughts: A collection of retro, country-tinged tracks sung sweetly by a barroom singer.  It’s pretty and well-produced, and while there’s nothing wrong with Burch’s album it’s nothing we  haven’t heard before from Patsy Cline and singers produced by Phil Spector among others, so it’s just a tad bit dull.
Rating: **


 

What I’m Listening To Now – January 2017


This is an experiment.  Instead of constantly filling this blog with Podcast of the Week, Song of the Week, and Album of the Month posts, I’ve decided to try to collect all the things I listen to over the course of a month in post.  Hopefully, allowing myself the time will also allow me to create something more worth reading.

Let me know what you think, and what you’re listening to, in the comments.

Podcasts of the Month

Maeve in America: The Annie Episode: Annie Moore Room?

This ongoing podcast about the experiences of individual immigrants in America relates the tale of the young Irish woman who was the first person to be processed through Ellis Island.

The Nation – Start Making Sense: We Can’t Just Protest Trump, We Must Defy Him

I recently started listening to this podcast from The Nation and it offers some great strategies for what we must do in the Trump era.

Reveal: Water Wars

One of the scariest things in the world today is the lack of access to fresh, clean water, which is of course vital to life.  The war in Yemen is possibly the first war ever fought over water.

Fresh Air: The Systemic Segregation of Schools

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a journalist who tracks how generations after Brown v. Board of Education, public schools are still largely segregated by race, and inequitable, and the choices of even the most liberal people of privilege maintain the system.

All Songs Considered: The Power of Politics, Music, and More

New songs, especially the first four songs in this podcast, tie in with the political issues of our day.  The a cappella performance of MILCK’S “Quiet” from the Women’s March on Washington is below.

Decode DCHey Tea Party, Meet Your Lefty Cousins

The American Left will need to use the tactics and strategy of the Tea Party to make any headway in the Trump years. The Indivisible guide explains how.

Albums of the Month
 

Artist: Bonobo
Album: Migration
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Migration” and “Outlier”
Thoughts: Electronic drumbeats and resonant bass notes are coupled with world music melodies on this album that is largely instrumental music.  This is not going to get you on the dance floor, but is more music for relaxation and meditation.  With the exception of a couple of bland tracks with vocals, this is highly listenable if not too original downtempo electronica.
Rating: ***


ArtistFlaming Lips
Album:  Oczy Mlody
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “How??,” “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill”,” and “We a Family”
Thoughts: The Flaming Lips have a penchant for being weird, but an album about unicorns and faeries and demons all experienced through a psychedelic drug is really weird.  A concept album with a healthy dose of profanity makes this reminiscent of Funkadelic, although this is more dreamy and fuzzed-out than funky. The music is downtempo but also has a sunniness that puts it at odds with the band’s last album The Terror.  Also, Miley Cyrus is guest vocalist on one track. Weird.
Rating: ***


ArtistRun the Jewels
AlbumRun the Jewels 3
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks:  “Talk to Me,”  “Call Ticketron,”  “Don’t Get Captured,”  “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” (featuring Tunde Adebimpe), and “Oh Mama”
Thoughts: I shouldn’t be allowed to review hip-hop albums since I’ve not paid much attention to the genre the past 25 years, but I’ve liked what I heard from Run the Jewels and their latest doesn’t disappoint.  In a way, it’s not too dissimilar to the hip-hop I liked in the late 80s/early 90s – sonically dense, musically creative, and lyric that are conscious and in your face but not preachy.
Rating: ****


ArtistThe xx
Album:  I See You
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Dangerous” and “I Dare You”
Thoughts: I was looking forward to this album since band member Jamie xx’s album In Colour was on of my favorites of 2015.  Unfortunately, I find myself disappointed with the full band’s effort.  The songs have more of a contemporary r&b sound, and while there’s nothing wrong with downtempo music, a lot of these tracks sound lethargic. It’s not a bad album, but it’s not memorable either.
Rating: **


ArtistAustra
Album:  Future Politics
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Future Politics,” “Utopia,” and “43”
Thoughts: Wow, this is powerful album, musically and politically, from the Canadian band.  Once again, I’m reminded of the 1980s with the synthpop sound and the bold vocals of Katie Stelmanis put me in mind of Alison Moyet and Yaz.  It’s worth the time to immerse oneself in this album.
Rating: ****


ArtistPriests
Album: Nothing Feels Natural
Release Date: January 27, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “No Big Bang,” “Pink White House,” and “Suck”
Thoughts: Loud, angry music from the D.C. punk band.  ,Like with Run the Jewels I’m transported back to the 1980s, yet the music is fresh and current. This is music that captures the anxiety of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Rating: ***


 

2016 Year in Review: Favorite Songs


Once again, it’s time to look back on the music of 2016 with my favorite songs of the year.

I’ve featured many of this songs in my Song of the Week posts this year.  If you see a link from a song title it will take you back to the Song of the Week post for that song, or other time I wrote about that band.

For previous year-end lists of previous years check out my lists for 2015,  201420132012,  2011,  2010  and  2009.

In alphabetical order, here are my ten favorite songs of the year:

Atomic Number” by case/lang/veirs

Brother, What Happened” by Muddy Magnolias

Big Bad Good” by My Bubba

“Freedom” by Beyoncé

“Mighty (feat. JFTH)” by Caravan Palace

“Quiet” by Erik Blood

To Have You Back” by Tourist

Wave of History” by Downtown Boys

Your Best American Girl” by Mitski

You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen

 

And here are five honorable mentions:

Augustine” by Blood Orange

Frankie Sinatra” by The Avalanches

Stranger Things” by Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein

“This Girl” by Kungs vs. Cookin’ on 3 Burners

Yeah, I’m Okay With My Shit Life” by Bethlehem Steel

What were your favorite songs of 2016?

 

2016 Year in Review: Favorite Albums


This is my second attempt at making an Albums of the Year least after my first try in 2014.  There aren’t any real surprises here as most of these albums are appearing on every other list, so I will have to seek out younger and more experimental musicians.  Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on five great albums from 2016.

Listed alphabetically by title, with links to my original reviews where possible.

David Bowie, Blackstar

Bowie’s final album, released days before his death, shows that he was an experimenter to the very last, incorporating jazz and electronic songs into richly textured songs about mortality.

Beyoncé, Lemonade

Confession: I never listened to anything by Beyoncé before this year.  But this album blew me away with it’s mix of genres and the blend of personal travails with the political aspirations of black women.  It seems appropriate that it comes 25 years after Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Beatle’s Revolver because each album created a new sound for its generation.

A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation

As the Water Protectors made their stand  against DAPL this year, it is appropriate that the Ottawa-based DJs of A Tribe Called Red released their most angry, political album yet.

The Avalanches, Wild Flowers

It wasn’t worth waiting 16 years, but it’s still a wild mix of sounds that feels like a back alley journey through American music.

Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker

Another farewell album recorded by an artist in his dying days that shows that the power of creativity can persist into old age.

For an entirely different list of albums I’ve never heard before (but really want to now), check out this list on the Speed of Things by my friend Erik.

What are your favorite albums of the year?

 

 

 

 

Albums of the Month: December 2016


A gaggle of albums to finish off 2016.

Artists:  Car Seat Headrest
Album: Teens of Denial
Release Date: 2016 May 20
Favorite Tracks: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “1937 State Park,” and “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)”
Thoughts:  This one is from earlier in the year but I decided I’d give it a spin after hearing Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered declare it one of the best albums of all time.  It’s your typical punk/grunge/powerpop blend with tonal and stylistic changes within the track.  Reminiscent of bands like Pixies, Pavement, Beck, and Franz Ferdinand (and perhaps because I just spent a week listening to The Replacements I’m hearing their influence too).  Not bad, but also kind of generic.
Rating: **1/2


Artists: Muddy Magnolias
Album: Broken People
Release Date: 2016 October 14
Favorite Tracks: “Brother, What Happened?,” “Shine On!,” “Devil’s Teeth,” and “Train”
Thoughts: This Nashville-based duo sings songs of love lost and love desired, tragedy and hope in a blend of blues, country, and soul.  Both Jessy Wilson and Kallie North can belt it out with their own searing vocals.  This album is a balm for our troubled times.
Rating: ***


Artists: Margo Price
Album: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Release Date: 2016 March 26
Favorite Tracks: “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”
Thoughts: Speaking of Nashville, I don’t listen much to country, but when I do I prefer the twangy honky-tonk of the 1960s and 1970s to the more polished pop country of recent decades.  Margo Price channels Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and other country superstars of the era.  Her voice is terrific and whether she’s singing about a man who done her wrong or the story of how her parents lost everything, you know she’s taking no prisoners.  My favorite Margo Price song, “All American Made,” is not on this album but you can watch her perform it in this Tiny Desk Concert.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist:  Moby and The Void Pacific Choir
Album: These Systems Are Failing
Release Date: 2016 October 14
Favorite Tracks: “Hey! Hey!” and “A Simple Love”
Thoughts: This album features Moby the hardcore punk funneled through Moby the producer and DJ.    It’s a set of 9 songs of angry chants set over drum beats targeting Moby’s political and personal opponents.  It’s fun for a listen or two but it does feel empty and repetitive.
Rating: **


Artist:  The Rolling Stones
Album: Blue & Lonesome
Release Date: 2 December 2016
Favorite Tracks: They’re all pretty good.
Thoughts: The Rolling Stones released their first album in over a decade and it’s a collection entirely of covers of the Chicago Blues classics that inspired them to start a band over 50 years ago.  The positives: the rhythm section is tight, Richards’ guitar wails, and Jagger’s harmonica and vocals are the top of their game.  There’s no doubt that they’re having a good time making great music.  The negatives: the recordings of the original artists performing these songs are out there and they’re just as good or better.  And this album is not going to be remembered as part of the Stone’s legacy.  So this album is a transient joy but perhaps it can also be a gateway to discovering the Chicago Blues greats and the Stones’ originals.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist:  Childish Gambino
Album: “Awaken, My Love”
Release Date: 2 December 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Have Some Love,” “Zombies,” and “Redbone”
Thoughts: Donald Glover’s latest album is a sonic trip back to the 1970s reinterpreting the musical sounds of PFunk, Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire and others.  It’s a strong album, but much like Blue & Lonesome, I wonder what we get from listening to this over the original music.
Rating: ***

Music Discoveries: The Replacements


The Replacements are a band I started listening to in high school in the 1980s (highly apropos) coming off a time when I’d spent a couple of years listening almost exclusively to Classic Rock. The Replacements were a special band for me because not only was I listening to something current but the cool alternative kids weren’t listening to The Replacements either. Until I got to college where everyone knew The Replacements. And then the band broke up.

Anyhow, I’ve been reading the biography of the band, Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr (review forthcoming), and while I had four of the band’s last five albums, I wasn’t familiar with their early stuff.  I figured this was a good opportunity to do a Music Discovery.  So crack open a beer, crank up my best of The Replacements playlist on Tidal, and read on.
Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Release Date: 25 August 1981
Favorite Tracks: “Careless,” “I Bought a Headache,” “Don’t Ask Why,” and “I’m in Trouble”
Thoughts: This raw debut captures the energy of early 80s punk rock, with The Replacements already showing some of their pop sensibility.  18 songs seems like overkill for a band just starting out, but really there are no stinkers here.
Rating: ****


Album: Stink
Release Date: 24 June 1982
Favorite Tracks: “Kids Don’t Follow” and “Stuck in the Middle”
Thoughts: This EP or mini-LP (or really “Kids Don’t Follow” with 7 B-sides) is straight-up hardcore punk.  With tracks named “Fuck School,”  “White and Lazy,”  “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” and “God Damn Job,” it seems that The Replacements are a stereotype of white teen boys rebelling against suburban, middle class values.  But The Replacements are in on the joke, so that makes it work.  And songs like “Go” presage the musical and lyrical complexity of future works.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Hootenanny
Release Date: 29  April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Color Me Impressed” and “Within Your Reach”
Thoughts: I want to say that this is the album where The Replacements found there sound as they moved away from hard punk to something that sounded more like a clearly identifiable Replacements sound, particularly on “Color Me Impressed.”  But then again, this album has a little bit of everything – rockabilly, blues rock, and folk particularly – while the drum loop on “Within Your Reach” gives it a contemporary New Wave sound and “Mr. Whirly” is a Beatles’ parody.  For an album with a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, it is surprisingly cohesive.
Rating: ***1/2


Album: Let It Be
Release Date: 2 October 1984
Favorite Tracks: “I Will Dare,” “Favorite Thing,” “Androgynous,” “Unsatisfied,” “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and “Answering Machine”
Thoughts: Finally up to an album I remember from my youth rather than hearing for the first time.  And is this not the perfect encapsulation of disaffected youth in the 1980s, from the pain and angst to the puerile humor?  It’s hard to come at an album that’s received such accolades from a fresh perspective, other than to say it deserves all of them.
Rating: *****


Album: Tim
Release Date: October 1985
Favorite Tracks: “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and “Here Comes  a Regular”
Thoughts: This is another album I didn’t have when younger, although several of the tracks were familiar.  There’s definitely a shift in tone on this album as Westerberg’s singer/songwriter talents and pop sensibilities continue to develop, leading to more down-tempo songs and a mix of rockabilly and folk rock instead of the harder punk of previous albums.  It’s a good album but it’s still a big step down from Let It Be. This is also the last album for founding member and guitarist Bob Stinson who either had artistic differences with Westerberg, want to stick to only playing rockers, or was fired by the rest of the band because his substance abuse made him too unreliable for even The Replacements (probably aspects of both are true).
Rating: ***


Album: Pleased to Meet Me
Release Date: 1985 June 17
Favorite Tracks: “Alex Chilton,” “I Don’t Know,” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Thoughts: The band’s only album as a trio is also their major label debut and continues to show Westerberg’s skill as a crafter of pop/rock tunes, in some case even bringing in horn and string arrangements.  Despite the departure of Bob Stinson, this album seems to have a harder edge than Tim.  This album could’ve been an indication of how The Replacements could’ve matched their earlier punk ethic with a more accessible sound, but with the power of hindsight, we know it’s The Replacements’ last great album.
Rating: ***1/2


Album: Don’t Tell a Soul
Release Date: 7 February 1989
Favorite Tracks: “I’ll Be You”
Thoughts: This was the first Replacements’ album I ever listened to, so it breaks my heart to admit that it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of their work.  The production values are very high, but the band’s anarchic brilliance is lost in the process.  It’s clear that they were trying to distill The Replacements through the prism of the recent indie rock success of REM’s Document (which is probably why I liked it at the time) but erased The Replacements in the process.  “I’ll Be You” is still a brilliant song though.
Rating: **


Album: All Shook Down
Release Date: 25 September 1990
Favorite Tracks: “Sadly Beautiful” and “When It Began”
Thoughts: This album started as a Westerberg solo project and even though the record label insisted it be a Replacements’ recording, the rest of the band merely appears among many session musicians and guest artists.  Despite that, it is a brighter and more listenable album than it’s predecessor.  It’s a long way in less than a decade from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash to be at a point where the majority of this album is acoustic, singer/songwriter pieces and the highlight is a track with a cello solo (“Sadly Beautiful”)
Rating: **1/2

While working on this post I found this interesting article by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! listing her favorite songs by the Replacements.

Music Discoveries: Stevie Wonder, 1970-1982


When I was a kid, on an occasion when my mother took me shopping at Bradlee’s, I wandered into the electronics department and heard a stereo system blasting “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. A young, slender African American man (I remember thinking he resembled Raj from “What’s Happening”) was dancing in front of the stereo, clapping his hands and shouting out “yeah” at intervals. And really what greater testament to the music of Stevie Wonder than to say it is the type of music that will make you dance, clap, and shout in Bradlee’s.

For this Music Discovery, I did not listen to every recording Stevie Wonder ever made, but focused on a dozen years or so during which he had his greatest artistic output and critical success. To warm up for this, I first listened to Wonder’s hit songs from the 1960s.

1 Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2
2 Hey Harmonica Man
3 Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
4 A Place In The Sun
5 I Was Made To Love Her
6 I’m Wondering
7 Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day
8 Alfie
9 For Once In My Life
10 I Don’t Know Why
11 Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday
12 My Cherie Amour

Of these songs, “Fingertips” never fails to wow me with its combination of raw talent and exuberance in performance. “My Cherie Amour” is kind of cheezy ballad but its always been a sentimental favorite of mine.

And now on to the 1970s.

AlbumSigned, Sealed & Delivered
Release Date: August 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Signed, Sealed & Delivered,” “Heaven Help Us All”,  & “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Thoughts: 20-year-old Stevie Wonder is beginning to make his own artistic choices and statements musically and lyrically while still in the standard Motown mold.  A consistent album with “Heaven Help Us All” offering gospel styles and socially conscious lyrics as the stand out track.
Rating: ***


AlbumWhere I’m Coming From
Release Date: April 1971
Favorite Tracks:”Do Yourself A Favor,” “If You Really Love Me,”  & “I Wanna Talk To You”
Thoughts: Wonder’s first fully-independent recording is compared to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On due to the focus on war and social issues but I’m also hearing similarities in musical experimentation to what Funkadelic was doing in the same period.  “Do Yourself A Favor” and “If You Really Love Me” are the standout tracks with “I Wanna Talk To You” and entertainingly weird dialogue between Wonder and a racist white person (also voiced by Wonder).  There’s a lot of inconsistency over the course of the album with ballads getting the “soft rock” treatment, and the finale “Sunshine in Their Eyes” gets an A-for-effort for experimentation but comes out sounding a bit of a mess.
Rating: ***


AlbumMusic of My Mind
Release Date: March 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running”
Thoughts: Alternately funky and silky-smooth soulful, the first of the classic period albums displays Wonder’s versatile vocal abilities and experiments with keyboards.  For such a  notable album I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of these tracks but there’s a remarkable consistency through the album.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumTalking Book
Release Date:  October 1972
Favorite Tracks: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Big Brother,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Thoughts: This album has a timeless quality, it sounds like it could’ve been released this year.  It must’ve been revelatory when people first heard it in 1972.  Wonder experiments with numerous keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, continuing as a one-man band on many tracks, but also has numerous guest artists including Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves, David Sandborn, Deniece Williams, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeff Beck.  Also, “Superstition” is one of the all-time great songs.  It never fails to amaze me.
Rating: ****


AlbumInnervisions
Release Date: August 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
Thoughts: Overall a more jazzy disc with some funk overtones.  Not at as consistent as previous albums with some valleys and peaks, but when the peaks are “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” they are some mighty fine peaks!  Also, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is all too relevant for our times.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumFulfillingness’ First Finale
Release Date:  July 1974
Favorite Tracks:  “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,”  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Thoughts: A somber and less-optimistic album, both musically and lyrically, compared with its predecessors.  A strong gospel influence runs through the album alongside funk, soul, and jazz improvisation.
Rating: ****

 

AlbumSongs in the Key of Life
Release Date:  September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”
Thoughts: A sprawling album of 21 tracks, many of them over 5 minutes long, that originally was released as a two LPs with a bonus  EP.  It’s reminiscent of the Beatles’ “white album” both in the exploration of musical styles and the thought that maybe this could be trimmed down to a solid single album, but which tracks would you cut?  Nevermind, splendor in the surplus of sound.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumHotter than July
Release Date: September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
Thoughts:  After averaging more than 1 studio album per year from 1962 to 1976, Stevie Wonder took a long break after Songs in the Key of Life (itself a double album).  He recorded a soundtrack Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” in 1979, and finally returned to a traditional studio album with this recording in 1980.  He shows of his musical versatility with the contemporary country sound of “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and the reggae homage to Bob Marley of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”  All in all, a solid album with a mix of funk, disco, and jazz-inspired improvisation.
Rating: ***

To finish things up, I listened to  the compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes 16 of the great songs from the 1970s and four new tracks:    “Front Line”, “Ribbon in the Sky”, “That Girl”, and “Do I Do.” Of these “Front Line” is a great funk number telling a still relevant story about a man sent to war, disabled, and returns to the poverty and desperation of his family and neighborhood.  The middle two songs are forgetable ballads, but I do remember “Do I Do” getting a ton of airplay as a kid, albeit lacking the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, and Stevie Wonder’s rap that turns into scatting on the fadeout.  They must’ve played a radio edit, which is a shame.

If you wish to enjoy all the favorite tracks cited above, I’ve put them together in a Tidal playlist. You can’t go to Bradlee’s anymore, but wherever you are you can crank up the music, dance, clap, and shout “yeah!”

 

 

Albums of the Month: November 2016


I started working on this post a few weeks ago, set it aside, and in the intervening time one of the artists review straight-up DIED.  I feel terrible guilt that I didn’t get my thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s now-final album up in a timely manner.  Before anything bad happens to any of the other artists, here are my thoughts on five recently released albums you should give a listen to.

Artist: Jenny Hval
Album: Blood Bitch
Release Date: September 30, 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Female Vampire” and “Secret Touch”
Thoughts: Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval presents this concept album on the theme of blood.  It’s sonicaly rich with complex lyrics about things ranging from vampirism to menstruation
Rating: ***


Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: You Want It Darker
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Lyrics of Note:

As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
– “Steer Your Way”

Favorite Tracks: “You Want It Darker,” “Treaty,” “Leaving the Table,” and “Steer Your Way”
Thoughts: A beautiful farewell from the singer/songwriter/poet Cohen (although he could have very well gone on to record another brilliant album had he survived).  It seems unprecedented that much of Cohen’s best work came at such an advanced age.  Even if his older songs are much-covered classics, the work on his final albums has some of the best instrumentation, production, and performing.
Rating: ****


Artist: Tanya Tagaq
AlbumRetribution
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Nacreous,” “Aorta,” “Centre,”
Thoughts: The Inuit throat singer’s newest album sees her crossing over into other musical styles, bringing in Tuvan throat singers, collaborating with rapper Shad, and covering Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”  But this isn’t a cozy Putamayo “world music” release from the 1990s, instead it is a vital statement of plight of indigenous peoples and global warming, and a call to political action.
Rating:


Artist: John K. Samson
Album: Winter Wheat
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Select All Delete,” “Oldest Oak at Brookside,” “Alpha Adept,” and “Virtute at Rest”
Thoughts: The lead vocalist of The Weakerthans newest solo project sounds a lot like a Weakerthans recording but stripped down to just the vocals and a few instruments.  The songs navigate technology and nature and addiction and recovery.  It’s a musically sad, but lyrically hopeful recording so worth a deep listen, even if you’re down in the dumps.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist: Agnes Obel
Album: Citzen of Glass
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Familiar,” “Trojan Horses,” and “Citizens of Glass,”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts: Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Agnes Obel’s music reminds me of a lot of things – Phillip Glass’ avant guarde keyboards, Clannad’s layering of vocals and instruments, Joanna Newsom’s vocal stylings, and Led Zeppelin in their most mystical folkiness.
Rating: ***

Turns out this was a very Northern review with three Canadian and two Scandinavian artists.  If there’s a new album you think I should hear and review in December, let me know in the comments.

 

Song of the Week: “Life on Mars?” by Sophia Anne Caruso


Just when you thought there was already enough David Bowie content on this blog, today’s Song of the Week comes from the recently released cast recording of the David Bowie musical, Lazarus.  Sophia Anne Caruso’s interpretation of “Life on Mars?” is the perfect Bowie and the musical theater.  I can’t stop listening to it.

Take a gander and see if you think the same.

 

Music Discoveries: David Bowie, 1988-2016


The 1980s saw a low point in David Bowie’s creative output. He was not alone, as many of the great artists of the sixties and seventies released a lot of dreck in the 1980s. Many of them never recovered, while others regained relevancy only as nostalgia acts, touring on their old hits and/or recording new songs that sound a whole lot like their old songs. Always one to be different, in 1990 Bowie staged his Sound & Vision Tour where he symbolically “retired” much of his back catalog of hit songs (although some of the songs returned for later tours). Incidentally, my sister had a cassette of the Changesbowie greatest hits compilation from the same year, which was my first exposure to most of Bowie’s hit songs.

Around the same time, Bowie formed a new band Tin Machine with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Sales, and Hunt Sales (my favorite tidbit is that the latter two are sons of children’s tv host Soupy Sales). Bowie made an effort to make sure that he was part of a democratic band encouraging interviewers to talk with the other band members and not just him. The hard rock sound was reminiscent of blues rock from the sixties and seventies (including Bowie’s work on The Man Who Sold the World) as well as contemporary alternative rock music that would soon become known as grunge. Rejuvenated by his experience with Tin Machine, Bowie had a creative revival and over the course of 25 years experimented with electronic music (both house and drum & bass), theatrical concept albums, video game soundtracks, jazz, and art rock, and set a standard for a rock star to age gracefully without compromise.

While Bowie will be most remembered for his work from around 1969 to 1981, I think his 1990s and 2000s work is also worth revisiting.

AlbumTin Machine
Release Date: 22 May 1989
Favorite Tracks: “Heaven’s in Here,” “Tin Machine,” “Crack City,” and “Bus Stop”
Thoughts:  I kind of wish I’d given this album a try when it first came out as it would’ve slotted in well with other bands I was listening to at the time such as Living Colour and The Smithereens, as well as blues rock from the 60s and 70s.  Better late than never.  While the music here can be bland at times, it holds up much better than Bowie’s mid-80s work.
Rating: ***


AlbumTin Machine II
Release Date: 2 September 1991
Favorite Tracks: “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll,”  “Stateside,”  “Shopping for Girls,” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed”
Thoughts: Still blues rock with a hard edge (especially “Stateside”) but a sound that fits in with the alternative rock of the era.  I think the first Tin Machine II album was more consistent, but my favorite tracks stand out more on this album.
Rating: ***


AlbumBlack Tie White Noise
Release Date: 5 April 1993
Favorite Tracks: “You’ve Been Around,”  “Jump They Say,”  “Pallas Athena,” and “Miracle Goodnight”
Thoughts: There’s a lot going on this album.  Bowie is celebrating his wedding to Iman. He is reunited with producer Nile Rodgers and guitarist Mick Ronson.  And he’s exploring blending house music with sax-heavy soul music.  Some tracks have a cheezy synth-sound, but overall this may be the most danceable David Bowie album.  This is another one I wish I checked out at the time it was released because I probably would’ve liked it.
Rating: ***


Album1. Outside
Release Date: 25 September 1995[
Favorite Tracks: “A Small Plot of Land,” “Hallo Spaceboy,”  “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “No Control”
Thoughts: Bowie once again dips into a well of previous successes, reuniting with producer Brian Eno and creating a concept album on dystopian themes not unlike Diamond Dogs. The result is a theatrical collection of industrial tracks.  The album is lengthy and dark in tone, so I can’t imagine wanting to put it on often, but that does not detract from the artistry of it.
Rating: ***


AlbumEART HL I NG
Release Date: 3 February 1997
Favorite Tracks: “Little Wonder,” “Battle for Britain (The Letter),” “Telling Lies,”  and “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Thoughts: David Bowie continues to experiment with contemporary music styles, this time blending drum and bass with his brand of rock and roll.  “I’m Afraid of Americans” is the only 1990s song I believe I’ve heard before, and it’s not even the best one on the album.
Rating: ***1/2


Album‘hours…’
Release Date:  21 September 1999
Favorite Tracks: The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
Thoughts: With Bowie, expect the unexpected.  What’s unexpected here is that this album originated with the music for a computer game soundtrack.  What’s unfortunate is that much of it is mellow, “easy listening” material which is a bit too reminiscent of his 1980s nadir (but with better production). “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” is the standout track, but I think it would’ve been just run-of-the-mill on previous 1990s albums.
Rating:*1/2


AlbumHeathen 
Release Date: 11 June 2002
Favorite Tracks: “Slip Away” and  “Heathen (The Rays)”
Thoughts: This album kind of strikes me as what if the guy who recorded Let’s Dance grew older and decided to record a more serious album. There’s nothing wrong with the that, it’s just odd considering all the other incarnations of Bowie in-between.  The instrumentation on the album is lush, but musically it still has too much of an easy-listening vibe.
Rating: **


AlbumReality
Release Date: 16 September 2003
Favorite Tracks: “New Killer Star,”  “Pablo Picasso,”  “Try Some, Buy Some,” and “Reality”
Thoughts: This is a partner album for Heathens, although with more of a post-punk vibe, a harder rock & roll edge, and more consistency from song to song.  Bowie gets abstractly political and throws in a couple of covers.
Rating: **1/2


AlbumThe Next Day
Release Date:  8 March 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Where Are We Now?” and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”
Thoughts: After a ten-year absence from releasing studio recordings, Bowie surprised fans with a new album. The Next Day is a straight-forward rocker of an album that both builds on Bowie’s past and show’s his continued interest in innovation. This another album where I haven’t singled out many favorite tracks but I do like the overall tone and flow of the complete album.
Rating: ***


AlbumBlackstar
Release Date: 8 January 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Blackstar,” “Lazarus,” “Girl Loves Me,”  and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Thoughts: For the first and only time, I listened to a David Bowie recording at the time it was released.  I remember being blown away by the title song when it came out in November 2015, and impressed that Bowie was doing such innovative work so late in his career.  And then Bowie died just two days after the album was released in January.  It’s clear that Bowie’s mortality informed the lyrics and that this album was a farewell.  But Bowie also left on a creative peak, incorporating experimental jazz and electronic music in his own inimitable way.
Rating: *****

Five unexpected things that I learned about Bowie through listening to all of his studio albums:

  • That he likes to do lots of cover songs.  I’d always thought he was the type of artist who only recorded his own songs.
  • That he’s a major collaborator.  I knew about Bowie’s work with Queen and Bing Crosby, but all through his career he worked with an enormous number of talented artists.
  • That he likes to rework, re-record, and reissue songs, often over long periods of time.
  • That most of his 80s work is so unlistenable, but that so much of his work from 1989 onward that I never heard before is rather remarkable.
  • That listening to all the studio albums just scratches the surface of the work Bowie produced since he has so many non-album recordings, soundtracks, remixes, live recordings, and collaborations with other artists, not to mention his work in music videos and films.

 On that last note, I could extend this Bowie discovery series indefinitely.  But, for now I will call this an end, and when Music Discoveries returns I will be revisiting the music of The Replacements.

Music Discoveries: David Bowie, 1975-1987


This second post in the Music Discovery series covers a dozen years and nine David Bowie albums.  It follows Bowie as he says goodbye to Glam Rock and Ziggy Stardust and takes on American soul, German electronic music, atmospheric art music, and finally pop superstardom.  The first six albums come out with regularity about a year apart, but by the 1980s, Bowie’s musical output drops considerably with only three albums in 8 years.  Sadly, the quality of that music also falls off a cliff, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same artists.  Bowie himself would refer to it as his “Phil Collins period.”

Despite only three albums, Bowie remained busy in the 1980s with major world tours and collaborations with other artists.  Some, like with Queen, were transcendent while other’s, like with Mick Jagger, were embarrassing.  Bowie also kept busy acting in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and Labyrinth (I need to have a David Bowie movie marathon and watch all of these).  I didn’t include his movie soundtrack work so there is more musical output there.  Bowie’s film experience also translated to music video and he helped make an art of the medium.  I remember the 20-minute movie/video for “Blue Jean” being a huge deal on MTV at the time, although his “Ashes to Ashes” video stands up more over time.

So here is it all, the weird and wonderful and sometimes cringe-worthy middle career of David Bowie.

AlbumYoung Americans
Release Date: 7 March 1975
Favorite Tracks: “Young Americans,” “Fame,”  “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” and “Who Can I Be Now?”
Thoughts: Bowie transitions into a 70s soul & funk style for this album.  To help out he collaborates with Luther Vandross, but also works with John Lennon on a couple of tracks.  I found the sound of this album a refreshing change at first, although it all starts to blend together after a while.  The cover of “Across the Universe” seemed particularly uninspired since a Philly soul take on that song seems so promising.  The two hit singles from this album, and surprisingly the bonus tracks added in later editions stand out for me.
Rating: ***


AlbumStation to Station
Release Date: 23 January 1976
Favorite Tracks:  “Golden Years” and “TVC 15”
Thoughts: The album continues the r&b sound of it’s predecessor, with a darker mood, and the addition of electronic instrumentation that prefigures the post-punk/New Wave sound by about five years.  Apparently Bowie was completely coked-out in recording this album and channeling the numb-to-emotion persona of the Thin White Duke.  I know this album is well-regarded so I hope Bowie fans won’t judge me too much for it not resonating well with me.  Still, a definite musical achievement.
Rating:  ***


AlbumLow
Release Date: 14 January 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Be My Wife,” “”A New Career in a New Town,” “Warszawa,” and “Subterraneans”
Thoughts: Bowie escaped a cocaine-riddled life in Los Angeles and moved to Berlin, working with Brian Eno on the first of what would become known as the Berlin Trilogy albums. Stylistically, Bowie moves on from American funk & soul to German electronic and avant guarde music.  The entire second half of the album is mostly instrumental and atmospheric music, something I really like although I imagine it was a shock to rock & roll fans in 1977.  I’d never heard any of this album before so it was a pleasant surprise to hear Bowie innovating in yet another musical style.
Rating: ***1/2 (I’d give the B-side a full ****)


Album“Heroes”
Release Date: 14 October 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Beauty and the Beast,” “‘Heroes’,”  “Sense of Doubt,”  and “Neukoln”
Thoughts: Bowie and Eno’s experiments with electronic and atmospheric music continue with this album trying and succeeding to incorporate those sounds into pop songs with lyrics.  There’s still a segment of three consecutive instrumental, atmospheric tracks near the end of the album.  As a result, the album feels all over the place musically, but delightfully so.  This very much feels like the groundwork for 1980s New Wave music.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumLodger
Release Date: 18 May 1979
Favorite Tracks: “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging”
Thoughts: Bowie builds on the experimental sounds of the previous two albums in a collection of songs with much more pop sensibility.  To this is added an element of world music on several tracks.  The effect is kind of a Bowie take on Talking Heads.
Rating: **1/2


AlbumScary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Release Date: 12 September 1980
Favorite Tracks:  “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” and “Because Your Young”
Thoughts:  The album is a culmination (and perhaps a purging) of all the musical sounds of the seventies, as well as a preview of what’s to come in the eighties.  There’s very little of the experimentation of recent albums, just straight forward rock in a New Wave vein.
Rating: ***


AlbumLet’s Dance
Release Date: 14 April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Modern Love” and  “Let’s Dance”
Thoughts: Bowie dives into 1980s mainstream success with this collection of danceable soul/funk tracks.  He plays no instruments, but his voice is joined by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Nile Rogers produces ready made hits.  While “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” are a couple of the great songs of the 1980s overall, the rest of the album is kind of a bland morass.
Rating: *1/2


AlbumTonight
Release Date: 1 September 1984
Favorite Tracks: “Blue Jean”
Thoughts: An attempt to follow up on the commercial success of Let’s Dance, this album is basically a collection of covers packaged around the one good song “Blue Jean.”  The rest of the album is almost unlistenable and it’s hard to believe it was created by the same person who made the previous 15 albums.
Rating: 1/2 *


Album: Never Let Me Down
Release Date: 27 April 1987
Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts: I want to be more generous with this album, because it sounds like there may be some good songs under the awful 80s production, and Bowie made the effort to write a new set of songs with a rock band.  But it still isn’t much fun to listen to this.
Rating: *

Next week: Bowie returns to innovating music setting an example for other rock and roll elder statesmen right up until his death in 2016.