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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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Favorite Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year again! I love collecting my favorite albums of the year into a blog post every December. I always get a great response about what albums I missed or why I’m stupid for having a certain album on the list. Anyways, another great year for music. So here they are:

10. The Ash & Clay – The Milk Carton Kids

This duo has some of the most haunting and most beautiful folk music around. With an incredibly unique writing style, harmonies that are very reminiscent of traditional folk, and impressive guitar playing, everything these guys do is magic. Here’s one of their few upbeat songs, “Honey, Honey” featuring Amanda Seyfried driving a car:

9. The Great Gatsby (Music from Baz Luhrmann’s Film) – Various Artist

Whether you love or hate this adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, there’s no denying that this is a killer soundtrack. Produced by Jay-Z, the recordings perfectly blend 1920s jazz and todays pop and hip-hop. Some might be turned away by the modern music but I think the reasoning is to make comparisons between the excess and extravagance of the ’20s and of today using music to show the parallels. And it’s great. Here’s Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody.” Give it a shot:

8. Foreverly – Billie Joe + Norah

Now I just recently reviewed this record so there’s no need to go into too much detail. Quick overview: Jazz pianist Norah Jones and punk singer Billie Joe Armstrong team up to recreate an Everly Brothers album of traditional folk and country songs. Here’s “Long Time Gone:”

7. Bankrupt! – Phoenix

Every Phoenix record is full of great pop/rock music. Of course, this record is no different. From the Asian-sounding melody at the beginning all the way through, they never let up. Seeing them live at ACL this year was a great experience that gave me a new side to all the songs. Live, they put way more emphasis on the drums and guitars and it seemed way more of a rock show than their records ever do. I guess we’ll listen to “Entertainment,” the first track and single off the album:

6. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow

This band is what happens if a folk band listens to too much U2 and lives in New York. And it’s great. I reviewed their record when it first came out and still love it now as much as I did then. Also, being front row at their ACL performance was an incredible experience. They were such humble performers and even had to play on borrowed instruments because an airline lost their luggage earlier that day. Anyways, here’s “Bleeding Out:”

5. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars

One of the few bands deserving of their name. First, their music and lyrics have always been about conflict and dissonance. Then the two singers (Joy and John) are now so mad at each other that they aren’t on speaking terms. So we now have a real civil war inside the band. And this record exemplifies all of this perfectly. Dark, haunting, dissonant, and beautiful. “The One That Got Away:”

4. Reflektor – Arcade Fire

After winning Album of the Year at the Grammy’s a few years ago, everybody knows and loves Arcade Fire. And for good reason. They make great rock music. Thought-provoking, heavy, and complex. And danceable..

3. Yeezus – Kanye West

Well, let’s get kind of controversial now. Rap music with incredibly minimalistic production. Lyrics touching on fashion, racism, religion, and some of the most misogynistic lines ever. And of course, Kanye himself is a love him or hate him character. All that said, this record is beyond killer. It’s polarizing sounds draws me in over and over. I can barely go a week without having to spin this another time. There’s no video for my favorite song, “New Slaves,” but you can listen to it here:

2. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend

Really, this was the surprise album of the year. I’ve always enjoyed Vampire Weekend’s stuff. Fun and simple rock music. Then they came out with this record and it’s pretty unbelievable. Boundary-pushing vocals, layered and deep lyrics, and some incredibly beautiful songwriting. The whole album is a great journey through their perception of New York and really, any city. I want to share two songs with you. First is their only “fun” song from the record, “Diane Young.” After that will be the track titled “Step” that has some great vocal melodies.

1. The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake

Originally released in two parts, this has to be the perfect pop record. Containing everything about classic, modern, and future pop, there’s a little bit of everything. These songs are way more fleshed out than you would expect from a pop star. The track lengths range from 4:32 to 11:31 with most falling in around 7 to 8 minutes. And not all of these songs are dance tracks. JT proved that pop music can be art (as Lady Gaga weeps). The first single features Jay-Z and is a great track, “Suit & Tie:”

A few months later he announced part two with this disco-influenced single, “Take Back the Night:”

Then in October, he released his most recent video for the single “TKO.” This one sounds a little more modern then the last two videos:

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How about some honorable mentions? Here’s 10 artist in no particular order that almost made my list: Sara Bareilles, Janelle Monae, Portugal. The Man, Jack Johnson, Jay-Z, The Avett Brothers, Gavin DeGraw, Jamie Cullum, Paul McCartney, and Lorde.

Well, that wraps it up for this year. I guess we’ll meet back again next December.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Lists, Music, Music Review

 

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The Lone Bellow

577945_306146779504503_913128390_nSo a few years ago I stumbled upon an album on NoiseTrade. It was Story Time by Zach Williams and after downloading, I quickly fell in love. I showed everybody the album and to this day I consider this my greatest find on NoiseTrade. Sometime last year, I found out Zach Williams and The Bellow were having a Kickstarter campaign to help record a new album. Without hesitation, I gave them $10 so I could have the album as soon as it was released. Nearing the end of the year, they changed their name to The Lone Bellow and announced the new album would be released in January of 2013. Yes, please.

That history told, their self-titled album was released today and it is a beautiful thing. The melodies, the harmonies, the folk instrumentation, the South-meets-New York feeling, it’s all perfect. Let me see what videos are on the interwebs because nothing I could say does this band justice…

Here’s an incredibly touching live performance of You Never Need Nobody:

Alright, now walk through the snow with Zach in Two Sides of Lonely:

Okay, okay. Enough. Click on the album cover at the beginning of this post and BUY. IT. NOW.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Music Review

 

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