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Favorite Albums of 2016

December is here and the temperatures are dropping. Amazon.com is getting all our money. But more importantly, it’s time for my annual list of favorite (not best) albums that were released throughout the year. Last year I started doing 20 albums instead of 10 but #s 20-11 had only a music video posted. The top ten will have comments by me with a video or two. Also, the titles will be links to iTunes (but please purchase/stream however you prefer). I guess let’s get started.

20. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life

19. clipping. – Splendor & Misery

18. Dr. Dog – Abandoned Mansion 

17. Snow Tha Product – Half Way There…Pt. 1

16. Nick Jonas – Last Year was Complicated

15. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

14. Haley Reinhart – Better

13. Wilco – Schmilco

12. Gallant – Ology

11. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

10. Norah Jones – Day Breaks

So finally, some words. So back in 2002 I watched VH1 before school. I enjoyed the music videos and the variety of music they played. One morning a beautiful voice sang to me over some jazz piano. That moment, I fell in love with Norah Jones. Fast forward 14 years through multiple albums spanning multiple genres (loved them all) and we get to 2016. I saw she was releasing a new album and the first single was up on Youtube. What I didn’t know before watching was she was using this album to harken back to her first jazz-driven album. The nostalgia of 2002, the sultry melodies and tinkling of the keys hit me in the stomach. The album releases and I quickly listened to it. And it’s perfect. It has the structures of the simple jazz pieces she wrote for her first album but the music itself borrows from all the experimentation with country and folk and pop and rock and hip-hop that she has delved in through the years. It blends seamlessly and I can’t get enough. So to the music, here’s the first single,”Carry On,” that knocked me out so surprisingly:

9. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. 

A year after the release of the critically acclaimed and amazingly wonderful To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar surprised everybody by releasing a collection of demos and tracks from the recording of Butterfly. And although it’s supposed to be demos, untitled unmastered. has everything we loved about Butterfly. The experimentations with jazz, funk, soul, etc. are still there. The politically-driven lyrics are still there. The window into Lamar’s psyche is still there. This has to be one of the most solid collections of demos and outtakes from any band/musician. The first track from this album we heard was actually before the release of Butterfly on the Colbert Report. Here’s “Untitled:”

8. The Avett Brothers – True Sadness

A part of me feels like the Avett Brothers can do no wrong. They just keep pumping out great albums. Songwriting is consistently spot-on no matter what variation their albums take. We’ve seen them go further into country, into punk, into rock, into folk, pop, bluegrass. But they’re still two brothers that love to write the words that need to be written with the melodies that need to be sung. Some fans get hung up on what these words and melodies are placed over. Is the recording too polished? Is there too much drums? What’s with all the extra musicians now? Who cares. Let’s just enjoy the gift of their craft that they keep on giving us. “Ain’t No Man,” the first single:

7. Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman

So one day I came across the video of Ariana Grande playing “Wheel of Musical Impressions” on Jimmy Fallon’s show. It was too good. After it ended, I said out loud, “Well, hell. If she can sing that good, I guess I gotta give her album a listen.” Luckily, she had just released Dangerous Woman so I pulled it up and gave it a listen. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the album was. Even though she’s obviously a powerful singer, she uses that whispery voice a good amount of the time. At first it somewhat annoyed me but listening through the album, I realized it made the moments she really belts it out more powerful. You get the drastic variations in her vocal range. I kept listening to the album and I still love it. I still listen through it about once a week. One of my favorite tracks of her album is the title track, posted below.

6. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

I won’t spend too much time on this album because I wrote about it back in May. But I’m still listening to it pretty regularly. It’s just so upbeat and happy. Chance is young, talented and taking over the world. Watch any late night, SNL, awards shows, and you’ll probably see him pop up. Daytime TV? Sure. He performed on Ellen. So since you can read my last blog, let’s listen to a song. Let’s chill the vibe a little with a live performance of the last track off the album, “Blessings (Reprise):”

5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

So everything surrounding this album perfectly encompasses Kanye West as a person. On one hand you have genius production, religious undertones, incredible features and samples that blow your mind. Then on the other: disastrous release, editing songs and changing tracks after the release, obviously misogynistic lyrics and cancelled tour dates because of mental health issues. While it’s not always easy defending Kanye, these dichotomies make him who he is. And his final products always speak for themselves. “Fade:”

4. Various Artists – The Hamilton Mixtape

So if you’ve been around me at any time over the last year or so, I probably talked to you about the Broadway musical Hamilton. I’ve been obsessed with the cast recording since it released. Halie and I saw the play on Broadway a few months ago. I pre-ordered and devoured the Hamiltome. All this led up to the release of the Mixtape a few weeks ago. Consisting of a few covers by pop and hip-hop stars, a few original songs influenced by the musical, demos cut from the play and covers of other demos, the album has a little bit of something for everybody. If you’ve listened to the cast recording as many times as I have, the covers might seem lacking. But the original tracks influenced by the play are incredible. And the covers of demos make me wish they were never cut. Before we hear a song, let me list a few artists on this mixtape: The Roots, Nas, Usher, Sia, Regina Spektor, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, Wiz Khalifa, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, etc. I know, I know. It’s crazy. Here’s “Wrote My Way Out” featuring Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aloe Blacc:

3. DNCE – DNCE

So November was hard for a lot of people for…obvious reasons. Before that, Philly’s public transportation was on strike so I had to bike to work for a week. So I really needed something to get me through the rest of this year. And DNCE provided. They released the most fun album this year and I can’t stop dancing to it. From the first to the last track. From the upbeat to the chilled. They are all fun. They’re sexy, musical ear candy. Oh, and the lead singer is a Jonas Brother. So do what you will with that information. “Body Moves:”

2. Sia – This is Acting

So some of you might have forgotten about this album because it came out at the beginning of the year but Halie and I jam this an embarrassingly amount of times. Even though it’s a collection of songs Sia wrote for other pop stars that they ended up not using, this album sounds more cohesive than most artists’ releases. From beautiful ballads to infectious pop songs, I just can’t stop listening to Sia sing…anything. My favorite song, “Reaper,” was co-wrote with Kanye:

If you’ve watched any of her music videos, you probably know a little about Maddie Ziegler. She’s the young girl that does all the incredibly weird dancing for Sia. Whether it’s in a video or a live performance, I enjoy watching her dance almost as much as listening to Sia sing. Recently, Sia released a deluxe version of the album with the single “The Greatest,” a song and video honoring the victim’s of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting.  Watch it:

1. Beyonce – Lemonade

This should be on the top of every “Best Of” list. It has some of the best songs written in a long time and by far the best songs this year. The album encompasses pop, hip-hop, rock, country. And she does it really, really well. She released a complete visual album to go along with every song and introduced us to the great poet from Somalia, Warsan Shire. She opened her heart and her anger to the world about the pain of dealing with a cheating husband. But ultimately the album just has one incredible track after another. I can’t stop listening. Also, all the features on this album were exactly what each track needed. Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd. Loved it. But let’s get to some songs. In “Hold Up” we get to watch Beyonce walk down the street with a bat. You can guess what she’s doing with it:

Sometimes a whole song is really good but there’s just one small section, one little musical aspect that makes it your everything. For this next song it’s the slight use of horns. They always show up right when you need them. Here’s “All Night:”

And let’s finish this out with the most powerful track from the album. This was the first single and ended up being the last track. To some, this song was controversial but they’re just looking for something to get upset about because I loved it as soon as it was released. I loved the biographical lines, the glimpse into her and Jay-Z’s relationship. Mainly I just loved the brashness of this track, “Formation:”


Well, there you go. Another year down, another list complete. Let me know what you think or what I missed in the comments. Here’s to a great holiday season and a new year. To new adventures!

 

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2016 in Lists, Music, Music Review

 

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Favorite Albums of 2015

Now that we’re in December, it’s time for all the “Best of” lists from every blog/magazine. And for whatever reason, I have always added my list to the group but with using the word “favorite” instead of “best” because I don’t think I (or anybody else) is really able to say what is best. Also, I usually do only my top 10 but this year I decided to tell you about 20 albums. But in the effort of not taking too much of your time, I’m only going to add comments to the top ten. 20-11 will be just a youtube link to one of the songs from the album. That said, let’s get to it. As always, the titles of the album are links to iTunes. Let me know why my list sucks, what you would have added and taken away, etc.

20. Billy Gibbons & the BFGs – Perfectamundo

19. The Lone Bellow – Then Came the Morning 

18. Leon Bridges – Coming Home

17. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

16. DNCE – SWAAY

15. Adele – 25

14. Wilco – Star Wars

13. Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect

12. Nate Ruess – Grand Romantic

11. MUTEMATH – Vitals

10. Ben Folds – So There

Eight incredibly fun songs recorded and written with the chamber pop group yMusic. A beautiful piano concerto written by Ben Folds and performed with the Nashville Symphony. All on the same album! How could this not be great? And that’s a rhetorical question because there’s only one option. It’s really great. Here’s Ben Folds and yMusic performing the track “Capable of Anything:”

9. The Milk Carton Kids – Monterey

I love this folk duo. They follow the traditional style of flat-picking harmonies. There songs are perfectly written, perfectly harmonized. You can barely tell if the songs were recorded this year or 50 years ago. And that’s exactly what they want. Everything I’ve heard from them has had the same emotional effect on me and all the tracks on this album are no different. Here’s their song “Poison Tree” that makes me want to cry every time I hear it:

8. Sara Bareilles – What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress

I’m always excited about any new Sara Bareilles music. She has perfected piano-driven pop music, she sings incredibly, and puts on a killer live show. I didn’t really know what to expect from her newest album. Let me explain. Sara Bareilles wrote the score for a musical adaptation of a movie titled Waitress. The musical was very successful and is opening on Broadway next year. But before all that happens, Bareilles wanted to record some of the songs from the musical as her own usual pop songs. And because of this we get a collection of her usual pop songs but with the storytelling of a musical. And Jason Mraz is featured on two tracks. So I loved it. Here’s “She Used to be Mine:”

7. Jamie Cullum – Interlude

Jamie Cullum continuously releases albums that explore connections between pop and jazz. He’s a prolific jazz pianist that writes pop music. Or a pop songwriter that plays jazz piano. Anyway, each album he releases falls somewhere different on the spectrum between jazz and pop. This most recent release is his first full jazz album. Recorded with a big band and IN ONE TAKE (!!!!!!!), the album consists of jazz covers and includes two great duets. Here’s the opening track, “Interlude,” performed live:

6. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Although this album opens up with what I consider a pretty weak song, the second track, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” is so good, I would still put the album in my top 10 even if it only had this song repeated a dozen times. And the rest of the songs are just as good. I don’t know another band playing right now that is as rock and roll, as raw, as good as this band. To prove it, here’s the band playing “Don’t Wanna Fight” live:

5. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After the electronic perfection of The Age of Adz and the hip-hop collaborations under the names S / S / S and Sisyphus (both with Son Lux and the rapper Serengeti), I don’t think anybody really expected the understated simplicity and beauty that Carrie & Lowell is. After his mother died of stomach cancer in 2012, Sufjan Stevens used his songwriting to explore his grieving, his relationship with his mother, and his thoughts on death. The song “Fourth of July” is one of the most direct songs on the album, dealing with his mother’s cancer and death, opening with lines: “The evil it spread like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly / What could I have said to raise you from the dead? / Oh could I be the sky on the fourth of July?”

4. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

Consisting of five of the most talented musicians in the folk and bluegrass worlds, Punch Brothers released another great album this year. Each album explores the boundaries of what bluegrass instrumentation can accomplish. You never really know what sounds they’ll be able to create with their collection of instruments and it’s always fun to find out. And on top of all this experimentation, they just write some of the greatest songs coming out right now. Honestly, I don’t know how they continue to pump out all this music because they all have relentless touring, writing, and recording sessions as individual musicians and with other groups. When do they get together to write and record? Who knows. But I’m glad it happens. Here’s the band performing two tracks from the album, “My Oh My” and “Boll Weevil:”

3. Florence & The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

I think Florence Welch has one of the strongest and most interesting voices in music. Her and her band’s first two albums have some of the most ethereal, beautiful, and haunting music out there. But their third album is a little different. More raw, more in your face, more vulnerable. It’s so different but exactly what you’d expect. The album cover is just a picture of her staring into your soul with nothing around her and that is precisely what the album sounds like. Nothing between her voice and your ears. It just drives right into you. Every track, every melody just hits you in the bottom of your stomach. And I couldn’t stop listening to it for a long time after the album came out. On top of all the great songs, the music videos were cinematography masterpieces. They are being released as chapters in a story titled The Odyssey and so far they’ve released 6 chapters. I’m not sure how many chapters there will be. Anyway, here’s chapter 1, the video for “What Kind of Man:”

2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Now if I would have attempted at making this list the “best of” and not my favorites, this album would have been number one. This is the most ambitious, most talked-about, most important release this year. On top of all that, it’s just a really great album. Blending hip-hop with jazz, funk, and spoken poetry, each track is an adventure. The lyrics throughout the album thoroughly dissect the experience of black Americans. Racism, hatred, hypocrisy, violence, religion, money, politics, police brutality, Wesley Snipes, drugs, Obama…Kendrick Lamar leaves no rock unturned. And with all this dense lyrical content, the album is incredibly playable also. So many fun jams, funky beats, and great raps throughout the whole album. Also, every time he’s played a track from the album on a talk show, it’s been incredible. All of them: his medley on the Late Show, SNL, and Ellen for some examples.  But his music videos are really where he hits hard. Let’s watch the video for “Alright,” which opens up with some spoken poetry and intense video clips, goes into a section of a song that’s not on the album, and then finally into the funky beat of the song:

1. Original Broadway Cast Recording – Hamilton

So I just told you guys about this recording last month. There really isn’t much I can add to what I’ve already said so just go read that post. But I’m still listening to it as much as ever. I’m still just as obsessed. I probably have more of it memorized than I’d care to admit. I closely follow Lin-Manuel Miranda through his whirlwind life showing up on talk shows, news channels, and television game shows. He freestyles on Fallon, he gave answers on Jeopardy, wrote music for the new Star Wars movie, and who knows what else. But back to the musical. Since it’s a Broadway play, there aren’t any music videos like all the previous albums. There are a few clips from the actual play but not too many. So instead, I guess I’ll just post the first 3 tracks from the recording. This will give you a pretty good idea of the music. The first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” gives us some biographical information and background story to Hamilton arriving in New York:

This brings us to Hamilton meeting Aaron Burr, his frenemy and the dude that ultimately kills him in a Duel. Really the majority of the conflict in the play is Aaron Burr’s desire to advance his career and how he blames Hamilton for most of his setbacks. That said, we don’t really see that conflict yet in the second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir:”

This brings us two the third track, “My Shot.” Lin-Manuel Miranda said he spent a year writing this song because he wanted every line to be perfect. This song encompasses his ambitions and his fears and introduces us to some of his friends. Listen:

From there it goes into the American Revolution and Hamilton meeting his future wife. After the war we get to the political battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, his sons death during a duel, and then Hamilton’s eventual death. You can listen to the whole cast recording on youtube. I highly recommend it. I mean, it is my favorite album of 2015.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Lists, Music, Music Review

 

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