Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Best of 2012 (so far)

I’m thrilled to be back with the higher ed music critics gang after taking a hiatus at the end of 2011 (things were a little busy at Penn State last November/December, not much time for music).

Anywho, 2012 has been a great year for music thus far, with veterans and newbies alike putting out some great albums. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • JD McPherson, “Signs and Signifiers” — I happened upon JD on XM driving home from work one day and was completely blown away. The DJ said “he likes that 50s sound” and boy he wasn’t kidding. McPherson blends Little Richard with Buddy Holly with a hint of Jack White thrown in for good measure. The best part? It’s all completely sincere. It doesn’t take much beyond the first few bars of “North Side Gal” to hear his passion for this genre com through. 
  • The Steel Wheels, “Lay Down, Lay Low” — What happens when you put John Fogerty in front of a bluegrass band? 13 tracks of awesome, that’s what. I got into The Steel Wheels last winter after seeing them live at a local concert series. I was immediately knocked out by Trent Wagler’s vocals (yes, he really does sound like John Fogerty, but it’s awesome) and the tightness of the band.The live sound I fell in love with translates well in the studio, both on 2010’s “Red Wing” and “Lay Down, Lay Low,” released earlier this year. Standout track include "Breaking Like The Sun" and "Andrea."
  • Dr. John, “Locked Down” — There’s nothing like a shot in the arm from one of today’s hottest musicians to bring someone back from the brink of irrelevance. That’s exactly what happened to Dr. John when Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys called him out of the blue and suggested they make a record together. “Locked Down” stays true to the doctor’s New Orleans sound while infusing it with that fuzzed out sound the Keys do so well.
  • Kelly Hogan, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” — Kelly first came onto my radar as a backup singer and player on Jakob Dylan’s “Women and Country.” On her own, Hogan floats effortlessly between country, jazz and indie rock. This album has a great mellow vibe and has quickly become one of my favorites for summer evening listening.
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Leaving Eden” - I promised #chickwithbanjos in this list, and here she is. Rhiannon Giddens plays a mean clawhammer banjo on the group’s sophomore release and has great vocals to boot. Need proof? Take one listen to “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” If a whole album of North Carolina hill country music is a little much for you, check out “Daughter’s Lament” from “The Hunger Games” soundtrack. These guys also put on an amazing live show; I highly recommend checking them out if they come your way.
  • Audra Mae and the Almighty Sound (self titled) - Mae’s solo release “The Happiest Lamb” was one of my top albums of 2010, and her sound has only gotten better with the help of a backing band. Her powerful vocals still knock me out, and it sounds like she’s having a blast with her band on almost every track.

Check out the songs themselves on my Higher Ed Music Critics Spotify playlist.

If the first half of 2012 is any indication, creating a top 25 list is going be no easy task come year’s end. See you in December! -- Jenna

Friday, July 6, 2012

Steve's 2012 First Half Favorites

Hello! I'm writing about music again! How exciting. My ten favorite albums of the year are below. I make a point to call them favorites instead of "best albums" because if I had more time I'd be listening to more albums I haven't had a chance to hear and they might just crack this list. When I like something I typically listen to it way too much, so that leaves less time for other music. With that said, here's a list of ten with artwork and a Spotify track from each. At the very end is a playlist with all the songs below and one more song from each album. Enjoy!

10. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...

A 23-word album title! My Lord. But doooooooooooooooooooon't let me. Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuin me. Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii maaaaaaaaaaay neeeeeed a chaperone. I am getting the album title a chaperone immediately because it can't be trusted. I am also getting Ms. Apple herself a chaperone because she's going around wearing squids on her head. Reckless woman. This album is unique as tacos on Jupiter and I really enjoy it. I have limited knowledge of what old Fiona Apple is like because I was busy listening to Korn and Limp Bizkit back then. Criminal is essentially all I remember from her. Point is, I'm not a regular Fiona listener but my Internet buddy @spencerkent directed me to this and I couldn't be happier. It's obviously easy for her to let the ideas flow and she's not adhering to any formulas. She uses a piano in a way most people don't. My wife caught me listening and said I must be getting in touch with my depressed feminine side. Take that as you will (not necessarily arguing). All in all, it's a good combination of uncomfortable and beautiful and you should give it a listen.

9. The Mars Volta - Noctourniquet

One day I think The Mars Volta is one of the best bands in the world and the next day I hardly care. OK that was an exaggeration, I always care about them, but when this album came out I wasn't foaming at the mouth to hear it immediately. That's really weird because Octahedron (their last album) is my favorite of theirs. Sometimes music is a lot about timing and I was just obsessed with other things when this came out. When I finally got around to listening to it I thought it was "pretty decent." That's good enough for number nine on this list.

8. Metric - Synthetica

It's no Fantasies, but it's quite good. I thought it was interesting that the band admitted they wrote music for Synthetica for fans, not themselves. This concept comes up towards the end of this lengthy interview. I think there's a difference between an artist being self-indulgent - which they were worried about so they revisited a previously finished product and changed it - and wanting to make music for yourself and if people like it, so be it. There's no wrong way, but I know plenty of bands that think the opposite. Anyway, the first three songs on this album are my favorites but the rest continue to grow on me. It's a great accessible pop-rock record, Emily Haines is a Goddess, etc.

7. A Place To Bury Strangers - Worship

Completely in love with this band's gritty, noisy onslaught of sound. It's full of character and strangely accessible. I should just dig up a review I've done for one of their previous albums and paste it here. If any band has no hearing left it's these guys. It's on par with their two other releases.

6. HEALTH - Max Payne 3 Soundtrack

This is a very, very good soundtrack. HEALTH is a band I've long loved but TEARS (SO MUCH SHOUTING!) may be the best song they've ever made. Because it's meant to be a soundtrack, it's no surprise it's much calmer than typical HEALTH (AH!), which is anything but. They've reeled it in and taking on a soundtrack is perfect for them. There are plenty of elements from their insanity here but they're toned down and weaved into the themes perfectly. Anyone who has listened to HEALTH (GAH!) before should be able to identify this as them. If you sit through one song you've never heard before out of these ten, try TEARS (THERE I GO SHOUTING AGAIN!).

5. Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror

I didn't think I liked this record all that much at first, but it grew on me over time. I think I was kind of growing weary of their sound when I realized the songs are just plain good. In all likelihood I was rebelling against the hipster factor. These songs are more in control than those on Treats and there's more variety. Refined would probably be a good word to describe their sound compared to the first record.

4. Death Grips - The Money Store

Possibly the craziest shit I've ever heard. I don't say that lightly... I have honestly never heard anything like this before. It will kill your brain. The sound is whopping. The rhyming is aggressive. Death Grips does not give any fucks whatsoever. The reverb knob is turned UP. Lots of grimey electronic elements, plenty of unusual programming, and random-ass rapping make it a serious joy to listen to at full volume. They also like to put marijuana and money in washing machines.

3. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

By far my most anticipated album of the year on this list, and it didn't disappoint. 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead is probably my favorite hip-hop album ever. El-P's production work is always the attraction but his lyrics are what stick with you. Somehow, as spectacular as this album is, it's not my favorite work of his in 2012. More on that at #1, but first...

2. Carina Round - Tigermending

Well, this album used to be on Spotify but was recently pulled. Maybe she grew tired of making no money. I wanted consistent cover art throughout this post so I embedded it from Spotify anway. Heck, maybe it'll be back by the time you read this. Like many others, I first discovered Carina through her work with Puscifer. Beautiful voice, obvious musical chops, and incredibly engaging (and attractive) stage presence gave me plenty of reasons to explore her previous work. Loving that had me looking forward to Tigermending. With a wide range of people in mind, if I had to bet that you'd like one album you hadn't heard before from this list, it'd be this one. Sorry, Metric.

1. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

I'm admittedly enjoying rap as much as I ever have before. Pundits give the genre a lot of shit but there is - and always has been - gold outside of the mainstream (this is true of any genre if you feel it sucks). The fella who had the number three album on this list was in charge of the music on this one and DAMN, El-P delivered. Truly amazing from beginning to end. No clue who Killer Mike was before this album but now I'll never forget. Give Reagan a listen.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Halftime! Chris's Midyear Top Ten

Well, SOMEONE has to bring some loud guitars to this group, and once again, I guess it's going to be me.  I have a primitive ranking done, but instead, I'm just going to throw out a bunch of records that have grabbed me so far these past six months and let the chips where they fall by the time it's all said and done in December.

I will say, though, that the album that's on top of my list so far this year is the latest opus from Ginger Wildheart.  The Wildhearts are a band that I don't think get enough press stateside (they're British); Ginger marries loud guitars and melody like nobody else.  Ginger ran his latest recording through PledgeMusic, and when he quickly raised 555% of his goal, he named his record after that number.  (It kept creeping up, and is at 588% now.)  It's... amazing.  My favorite song changes weekly, but for now it's the incredibly NSFW "Another Spinning Fucking Rainbow":

The full recording session includes 31 tracks, but he released a single disc, twelve-track version called "100%" a few weeks ago for the unwashed masses, with the tracks voted on by the fans.  We got most of the big tunes on there, but it's really worth downloading the full thing.

Note: Ginger has two records (a "disc two" of his "best of" record from a few years back, and the live and acoustic "Potatoes And You," which was one of my Top 10 from 2011) available for free download here.

I was pleasantly surprised to see new stuff from Blues Traveler making the rounds; "Suzie Cracks The Whip" was released early last month, and is excellent.  Very impressed by Slash's new one, "Apocalyptic Love."  Myles Kennedy channels Axl a lot here, but in a really good way.  Also enjoying the new tunes from John Mayer, Of Monsters and Men, Chris Robinson, the live Mike Doughty two-disc question and answer set, the country record from Lionel Richie (yes, seriously), and the new Japandroids, which I see has popped up on a couple of lists here.

It isn't a Chris List without old-time rock too; Trixter got back together and released "New Audio Machine" this spring.  It evokes 1991 without being overly kitschy; really just a solid rock record. "Rock N Roll Ride" from Jack Blades (Night Ranger/Damn Yankees), the new Van Halen, Gotthard's first post-Steve Lee record, and the Broadway record from Dee Snider are all enjoyable as well (yes, seriously again).

On the "bands you've never heard of" list, Venrez has spent the last few weeks opening for Alice Cooper; their debut "Sell The Lie" is a stonker.  So is Halestorm's "The Strange Case Of...", which took some time to grow on me. The best tunes there come at the end: "American Boys" and "Here's To Us" both find their way into my heavy rotation.  Dr. Dog's "Be The Void" is a solid listen as well.

Big thumbs up to Flying Colors also.  A "supergroup" from Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs/Deep Purple and former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, is proggy and poppy and metally all at once.

The big non-rock record to grab me this year is the original cast recording from Once, which won approximately a half-million Tony awards this spring.  I'm admittedly biased because I've got two friends from college in the cast, but the record's stunning... and the show is even more stunning.  The Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" is on there, of course, but the gem here is "Gold." It doesn't even pop on the record the way it does in the show; it gave me chills live.  Brilliant, brilliant show.  Deserved all the awards it got and all the ones it didn't get too.

Note: My two friends, Mike and Lucas, are front and center (plaid shirt, guitar) and rear stage left (tank top, green pants), respectively.

On my list are the Gotye and fun. discs, which I haven't fully listened to yet, and I've heard good things about Jukebox The Ghost, Everclear, Neil Young, Lit, and the Smashing Pumpkins.  Also have the new Ugly Kid Joe EP on my list to check out soon.

And in the "coming soon" section are Aerosmith, The Darkness, Alanis Morissette, Beck, Green Day (a three-CD run that will fall into 2013 also), DMB, the Killers, Zac Brown Band, and the Ben Folds Five, which I've already supported on PledgeMusic as well.  (Really, really hope The Darkness kicks my ass all over the place.  Miss those guys, and I like what I've heard so far.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Georgy's Triumphant Return to Musical Relevance (and Top 10 of 2012 So Far)

Hi. Remember me? I’m the person who used to obsessively write about music, and contributed a couple of roundups here in the past.

But then, I got the bright idea to start my own business. And my life since then, while it has been amazing in many respects, quickly became too full of work and travel to leave room for one of my favorite pastimes -- discovering and enjoying music.

Excuses, excuses -- I know.

So, as I write this on Independence Day, I find myself reflecting on something I’ve actually been thinking about quite a bit over the past week or two. I started my own business, in part, to have more control over my own life and priorities. But as it has turned out, in the crush to get that business off the ground (and figure out what the hell I’m doing), many of my personal priorities ended up taking a backseat. A relatively common conundrum for entrepreneurs, I understand. But life is so much more than just work. Work should support the life we want to live, not the other way around.

Thus, at this halfway point of 2012, I’m recommitting to my own independence (in all respects of the word) and reclaiming time for the things I love that make my life worth living, no matter my professional context. And one of those things is music.

As I step back into the Higher Ed Music Critics arena, I clutch hat in hand and sheepishly acknowledge just how much music has passed me by or only grazed me this year. But one of the lessons I’ve learned as an independent consultant is how to look at a problem as an opportunity -- and the sheer volume of undiscovered new music before me is a grand opportunity, indeed. I am grateful to have the recommendations of this group of smart and savvy folks to tide my ears over in the coming weeks.

That said, I haven’t been completely out of the loop, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some sweet tunes thumping on the stereo or in the earbuds as I’ve cranked on said work over the past few months. So here’s a look at my favorites so far, as well as some albums I’m sure will crack that list as soon as I give them their due.

Air Traffic Controller - Nordo

I first heard the single, “Hurry, Hurry,” randomly via Facebook, and from that instant I was hooked. I went to the Soundcoud page for the song multiple times daily, and when the video came out, I watched that a ton, as well. Perhaps it had something to do with how I’ve felt so far this year, but the song would not let me go. When the full album finally came out, the grip only intensified. One of the most refreshing, catchy and compelling pop albums I’ve heard in a while.


Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur

I’ve long been enamored with this Canadian import, and her latest album does not disappoint. Another rich tapestry of love and longing, woven with a wry frankness and hemmed by gorgeous melodies and Edwards’ stirring voice.

Stephie Coplan and the Pedestrians - s/t

Here’s my Stephie Coplan story - I interviewed her for a story at Tufts back in the day, when she was just posting YouTube videos of her dorm room keyboard compositions and organizing a music education program at a local school. Now she’s an incredibly talented, sharp songwriter who rivals Ben Folds for prowess at the keyboard and far surpasses him in the biting and intelligent lyrics department.

Best Coast - The Only Place

No, in response to everyone who asks, I don’t only love this album because the cover features a bear hugging the state of California. It’s also a gorgeous, sun-kissed pop gem, with some classic touches that hearken all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s. A delight.

Metric - Synthetica

You have to love an album that begins with the lyric, “I’m just as fucked up as they say.” That’s Emily Haines and Metric for you, just putting it out there like they’ve always done. The Metric brand of rock (again, Canadian!) is wreathed in a swirl of synthy melodies, but never lost in it. And Haines’ deceptively sweet vocals always pack a lyrical punch.


Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal

I’m echoing many of my colleagues when I profess my love for this album, but enough good things really can’t be said about it. This Icleandic band’s folk-tinged pop is uplifting, lush, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable. Must be the geothermic heat - just the right level of warmth.

The Lumineers - s/t

More folk fun. “Ho Hey” took over the airwaves much as Edward Sharpe did a couple years back with a simple but universally appreciated and delightfully expressed refrain - “I belong with you / You belong with me / You’re my sweetheart.” The rest of the album lives up the promise of that song.


Beach House - Bloom

Here’s a Moment I had the other day, which pretty much sums up my feelings about “Bloom”: I was driving home up I-93 North, and just as the Boston skyline came into view, the opening notes of “Myth” filled the car. My eyes welled, and as I descended into the tunnel I had to blink away tears as my eyes adjusted from the light to the dark. Awash in vulnerable beauty - that’s how Beach House makes me feel, in a nutshell.


Hospitality - Hospitality

What we have here is just a little bit of Brooklyn indiepop fun. Nothing here will change the world, but it will make it a little more tolerable -- it sure has for me. I can also smell the mid-90s in songs like “Eighth Avenue” and “Betty Wang,” and that always makes me happy.

Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror

When Sleigh Bells first came on the scene a couple of years ago, I recoiled. Then, I felt helplessly intrigued. Soon, I was captivated. Thus, I eagerly awaited the release of “Reign of Terror,” which may be less noisy, but is no less engaging and fun.

Hon. Mention - The Hunger Games soundtrack I know, soundtracks don’t really count. And maybe it’s just because I caught the Panem Flu bad earlier this year. But I thoroughly enjoyed this soundtrack -- it was an excellent musical companion to the film as well as the books, and it introduced me to acts such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and even Taylor Swift. (Seriously, her songs on this are quite good!)


Albums I Own and Have Either Listened to Insufficiently (and Enjoy but Not Enough to Comment On Them Intelligently) or Not At All (but I Am Sure I Will Enjoy Upon Further Listens)

Regina Spektor - What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Japandroids - Celebration Rock
The Shins - Port of Morrow
Girlyman - Supernova
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes - Here
Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls
M Ward - A Wasteland Companion
Fun. - Some Nights
Brendan Benson - What Kind of World
School of Seven Bells - Ghostory

Need to Get (And Can’t Believe I Haven’t Already)
Here We Go Magic - A Different Ship
Hot Chip - In Our Heads
Tanlines - Mixed Emotions
Tennis - Young & Old

 What else am I missing? (I'm sure it's a lot.) Let me know!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Alaina's Mid-2012 Review

At the close of 2011 when I was asked to contribute to the top albums list for this blog, I had to do some serious homework. I hadn't listened to more than 10 new albums throughout the year. Imagine! Then came Spotify and my life changed forever (or at least until some other music streaming service steals me away).

Below are the albums I've liked the most so far this year. I had a really hard time putting them in order, so take the ranking below with a grain of salt.

8. The Lumineers - "The Lumineers"
I am just really enjoying this album. Easily a contender for my Beard Folk playlist.

7. Tanlines - "Mixed Emotions"
This album is different than the other music I've been listening to lately, but it's intriguing. Nothing brings you back to the '80s like a good synthesizer, but this feels like more than a throwback. It's new and interesting.

6. JayMay - "10under2"
"10under2" is short, sweet, and funand will require no more than 20 minutes of your life to review.

5. Vacationer - "Gone"
Upon my first consideration of Vacationer, I told Ron Bronson that it was like Foster the People and Vampire Weekend had made a music baby. I challenge you to listen to this album and then disagree. Or, just listen to this album and enjoy it for being really great and dynamic.

4. Now, Now - "Threads"
Moody-broody goodness. I listened to this album on repeat for a few weeks. It's a little addictive.

3. Of Monsters and Men - "My Head is an Animal"
I've seen Of Monsters and Men classified as folk, indie, alternative. I feel like this album is bigger than just folk or whatever it is "indie" is these days. There are haunting melodies, harmonies, and layers.

2 or 1. Kimbra - "Vows"
When an album is released outside of the U.S. in 2011, but then released here in 2012, can it be listed in a 2012 review? I say yes. And so I give you Kimbra. You may know her as the female vocalist featured in Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know." Spotify describes her music as "jazzy R&B and indie-rock influenced dance music." Umm, that about covers it.

1 or 2. Fun. - "Some Nights"
My husband has been listening to Fun. for a few years. Like I do, I resisted listening to their music at length because I like making my own musical decisions. I'm super open-minded like that. This spring, though, we saw Fun. live, and I was hooked. The live show was so energetic and captivating. I even bought a t-shirt.

2012 At The Half

As we hit the halftime point in the year, we all head into the locker room that is the July 4 vacation week and take stock of what's happened so far. For me, it's been a brutal year personally, so the whistle can't come soon enough. As for music, the year has brought us some surprises (Gotye's breakout, the ubiquity of "Call Me Maybe") and the continued new world of sorry record sales (if you take out Adele's 21 sales are down from last year).

What follows is a list of ten albums I've been listening to a lot this year. This isn't ranked -- I won't do that until December comes -- but you can expect to see them somewhere on my final ballot in December.

Celebration Rock, Japandroids. 
A symphony of anthemic punk noise. "The House That Heaven Built" is the best turn-it-up-to-11-and-rip-the-knob-off banger in a long, long time. And the whole album is like that. 

Bloom, Beach House.
The chief critique of Bloom is that Beach House really isn't evolving their sound much from previous works. And that's a reasonable criticism, but there's a lot to be said for a band essentially doing the same thing but doing it better every time out. And Bloom, with its dream-pop melodies and shoegazer-lite sound, is pretty close to perfection.

Hospitality, Hospitality.
I freely admit I'm a sucker for Belle And Sebastian/C86 soundalike bands. I am, after all, every stereotype of a Belle And Sebastian fan: A natural introvert who'd rather read in a coffeehouse than rock out at parties (but still has the Teenage Fanclub back catalog cued up and ready to go). So now comes Hospitality, who wear their K Records credentials on their sleeves (even though they signed with Merge) and produce some of the best American chamber pop ever.

Tramp, Sharon Van Etten.
Van Etten has been an up-and-comer for a while, but this year she's really broken through, thanks to a tight set of songs held together by her emotional singing.

Young & Old, Tennis.
A husband-and-wife team out of Denver serving up yet another serving of pretty indie pop.

The Lumineers, The Lumineers.
The Lion's Roar, First Aid Kit.
Fear Fun, Father John Misty.
And here we talk about Year Three of this Folk Revival we've been in. The good news is it's not all Mumford And Sons and Fleet Foxes anymore. The Lumineers have their own take on the sound, turning it more bluegrass and folk (and away from the Anglophile sentiments of the Mumfords and Foxes). Meanwhile, two Swedish sisters calling themselves First Aid Kit have made arguably the best country album of the year (or maybe just the best alt-country album). And then there's Father John Misty, the moniker of former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman, who starts with the folk of the Foxes (and Damien Jurado, whom he used to back on tour) and takes it off in strange, psychedelic directions.

Homage, Portland Cello Project.
The Portland Cello Project has been doing... interesting covers for a couple years now. For example, here's their cello arrangement of "N****s In Paris." Their new album collects a few of them along with some originals. This isn't some novelty band we're talking about here -- they're deathly serious about transmogrifying metal and hip-hop into chamber string arrangements.

Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends, Flaming Lips et. al.
The Flaming Lips are always a hard band to listen to because you don't know if you're listening to music that's strangely great or greatly strange. Here they seemed to have managed both at the same time, thanks to a list of guest artists that reads like a third-rate game show's celebrity guests. I mean, Ke$ha. Ke$ha! And yet, that might be the best song on the album.

Here's another six albums I've been ruminating over this year:

Attack On Memory, Cloud Nothings.
La Grande, Laura Gibson.
Oblivion, Grimes.
Young Man In America, Anais Mitchell.
My Head Is An Animal, Of Monsters And Men.
Blunderbuss, Jack White.

And here's my running list of favorite songs of 2012 that's very, um, eclectic. Enjoy.