Thursday, January 13, 2022

Favorite Tracks of 2021 Playlist: Things Aren't Quite Right

Last week, I featured my top albums of 2021, but there are a lot of other individual songs from 2021 not on those albums that I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I again noticed a theme—this year, all these songs are about subjects and situations that aren’t quite right. I guess that is a pretty good general theme for 2021.

I’ve organized my 2021 playlist into six pairs of songs:

"Anthony Kiedis" by Remi Wolf and "Jealousy, Jealousy" by Olivia Rodrigo are both songs from young debut artists that are insightful commentaries about problems they are encountering—and the older generations can relate, too. The former is about dealing with the 2020 pandemic shutdown, and the latter is about the effects of social media. Both also feature fresh, fun, humorous music despite the heavy topics. FYI, Anthony Kiedis is the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in case that helps.

"Savage Good Boy" by Japanese Breakfast (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner) and "Fly as Me" by Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak in a 1970s throwback project) are both satires on toxic masculinity, throwing a light on how ridiculous it can be by inhabiting that space. Great lyric writing in both songs—as the songs go on, each character gets more ridiculous. Japanese Breakfast has some great production, and Silk Sonic somehow call back the 70s and update the sound at the same time.

"The Tradition" by Halsey and "Bloody Soil" by Northern Irish band The New Pagans are both about the exploitation of young women—no shortage of that still going on. Like Silk Sonic, both find inspiration in older musical genres to help tell their points—"The Tradition" uses English ballad melodies and form (though with some added production and off-key creepiness) and "Bloody Soil" calls back to early 80s U2 rock crossed with Sonic Youth noise rock.

"Harmony Road" by Sting and "The Princess and the Clock" by Kero Kero Bonito are both about escaping a bad circumstance not of the protagonists’ creation (or at least wishing to escape). I’m sure many of us can relate to feeling trapped and isolated. While "Harmony Road" isn't one of the best Sting lyrics, I’m always there for weird meter Sting and folk-inspired Sting (plus a Branford Marsalis sax solo). "The Princess and the Clock" is typical KKB quirky electropop, with a fantasy story. A fairly typical form is spiced up by three pregnant instrumental interludes.

"Make it right." by Tune-Yards and "Reach Out" by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine are about fixing things that have gone wrong in the past. Tune-Yards are also into quirky production, and you can hear it here, along with some unexpected repetition. "Reach Out" is loosely based on the 1987 German fantasy-meets-romance film Wings of Desire (The German title is better: Der Himmel über Berlin, the Heaven/Sky over Berlin) where angels listen to the thoughts of Berliners. It features the light, airy Sufjan production you’ve probably heard before. While the song definitely feels like a whole, a melodic section does not repeat until almost 2.5 minutes into the song. For those counting at home, the sections look like: ABCDEDBA. So that’s cool.

"Indigo" by Katherine Priddy and "Homeward Bound (For Ana Grace)" by Johnathan Blake and Pentad are both about going home after a terrible experience. For "Indigo," the experience was a beloved tree breaking in the storm—though I think also a hard life. Those chord changes and the folk-inflected (and sometimes overdubbed) vocals get me every time. "Homeward Bound" is dedicated to the daughter of two other musician friends of Blake; the daughter died in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. It’s not that often that the drummer of a group is the bandleader, but if more weird 5/4 meter jazz are a result, I’m all for it. Also: I can’t get enough of the vibraphone in small ensembles like this.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

My Favorite New Albums of 2021

2021 has been a strange year. A year in which there were new albums by Sting, Chris Thile, and Imagine Dragons, and none of those made my list of favorite albums. I picked 6 out of the 51 new albums that I listened to from 2021 to highlight, in no particular order:

Screen Violence by Chvrches – The Scottish electropop trio’s best album since The Bones of What You Believe (2013), its songs deal with the (mostly bad) effects of living your life through screens—which many of us have been doing. Try out “Asking for a Friend,” which is about how easy it is to say things online that you can’t take back, or “Good Girls” (explicit language warning) about living up to unequal gender expectations. Pretty much every song has a great melody and thoughtful organization.

La Grande Folie by San Salvador – This was my top discovery for the year. A six-person vocal-and-percussion group who sing folk-inspired music. They all grew up in the small French town Saint-Salvadour and perform in the Occitan language, the historically traditional dialect in their region (though they learned it as a second language). Try out “Fai Sautar” and you’ll probably be hooked and listen to the rest of the album.

Star-Crossed by Kacey Musgraves – While I agree with most critics that it is not as good as Golden Hour, my favorite album from 2018, I still thought Musgrave’s "divorce album" had a plethora of well-constructed, well-produced, great tracks. She has some insightful minute, emotional observations along with a few empowering sing-alongs. Musgraves continues in a country fusion style; you can have a good cry while having a dance party. Check out: “Good Wife,” “Breadwinner,” or the out-of-this-world flute solo in “There is a Light.”

I Know I’m Funny haha by Faye Webster – An Atlanta native signed to a hip-hop label, this indie album took me by surprise with its musicianship. I know this album isn't for everyone; it’s definitely a downer and Webster's vocals are often more breathy than necessary. The album's strengths are in the songwriting and the instrumental hooks, often in the chorus; these hooks take the album from good to great. Try: "Better Distractions," “Kind of,” or "A Dream with a Baseball Player."

Blue Heron Suite by Sarah Jarosz – Jarosz’s World on the Ground made my top album list last year, but I think Blue Heron Suite is a better album (well, technically EP, I think). It was written and recorded back in 2017–2018, and I’ve been waiting for a commercial release for a long time! The suite looks back at happy morning childhood walks with her mother on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas—written at a time when both her mother and the town were not doing great. The blue herons in the suite are a symbol of hope for Jarosz, hope that we all need. Also, herons are objectively cool. Jarosz has a talent for songwriting, mandolin and guitar-picking, and atmospheres. It should be listened to from start to finish (no shuffling!), with musical themes interwoven and re-orchestrated throughout, but if you must pick, try “Morning” or “Blue Heron.”

Pressure Machine by The Killers – I’ve never really been a Killers fan, but this album struck closer to home than anything they’ve ever done. And when I say closer to home, I mean it’s a homage to Brandon Flowers’ childhood growing up in Nephi, Utah, about an hour south of where I grew up (also, Flowers and I are the same age). Flowers’ characters are not blameless nor pristine, but pitiable, struggling to make ends meet, and under the shadow of the opioid crisis. The sound is more acoustic and Americana-inspired than previous albums. Almost every track starts with an interview from a Nephi local (though I wish these soundbites were separate tracks). “Quiet Town” or “Sleepwalker” are good introduction songs.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Favorite Tracks of 2020 Mix: Despair to Hope

Last week, I featured my top albums of 2020, but there are a lot of individual songs from 2020 not on those albums I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I noticed a theme—the protagonists in the songs are all dealing with something bad, from annoying to unpleasant to horrible. But depending on the song, how they deal with the problems is different. I've arranged the songs in a general order of despair turning to hope, with lots of gradations between. I hope you enjoy the mix!

My Favorite Tracks of 2020 mix: Despair Turns to Hope

  1. Halsey: "Graveyard" from ManicA captivating exploration of an unhealthy love with unhealthy consequences. The production is stellar—pay attention to the clapping, particularly. Technically, this song came out in 2019–but the album came out in 2020, so I'm counting it.
  2. Lido Pimienta: "Te Queria" from Miss ColombiaThis album takes its name from an incident in 2015 when Miss Colombia was mistakenly announced as the winner of the Miss Universe pageant. Pimienta, who is also from Colombia but now lives in Canada, uses this metaphor to describe how she has been treated in the music industry. The singer in this song (that title translates as "I liked you") falls in love with someone, thinking that the love would be reciprocated—but instead, she realizes her love would never be returned. So she dumped them. Pimienta creates a unique sound with steel drum and low saxes.
  3. Norah Jones: "Hurts to Be Alone" from Pick Me Up Off the FloorThe protagonist in this jazzy song deals with a breakup. I love how this song starts with the singer saying "never hurts to be alone" but in the end, she realizes that it "hurts to be alone" after all. Though this song was recorded before the pandemic, I'm guessing in this period of social distancing, now even more people can relate.
  4. Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande: "Rain on Me" from ChromaticaIn this catchy dance-pop tune, while the protagonists are feeling down, they are choosing to take their depression as an indication that they are alive—and dancing it out.
  5. Watkins Family Hour: "Fake Badge, Real Gun" from Brother SisterFrom two-thirds of the newgrass band Nickel Creek, Brother Sister marks the first time Sara and Sean wrote songs with only each other. This song is about a type of person we've seen a lot of in 2020—people who take it upon themselves to broadcast and enforce their own point of view, especially when that view differs from the facts or the law. You know, the type of people who stormed the capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to take out their own judgements on the U.S. Congress. The message of the song, though, is that the truth will win out in the end. I hope that is that is the case.
  6. Ohmme: "Mine" (single) – Speaking of distasteful people, this song is about people who think everything is theirs, even though they didn't really make any of it. I love how the music is catchy but also captures the absurdity of people who look at everything and say "mine." I think my favorite (and true) line is "Nothing trickles down that isn't bleeding." The unconventional harmonic progression is pretty awesome, too.
  7. Phoebe Bridgers: "Chinese Satellite" from PunisherThis song, from many people's album of the year, is about the problems of belief in modern life—wanting to believe in an afterlife, but struggling because of what you have experienced. I love Bridgers's images of 1) wishing on a Chinese satellite because the stars aren't visible because of light pollution and 2) her SciFi vision of going home. I also love the little production touches like the background satellite beeping and the judicious use of strings.
  8. Buscabulla: "Nydia" from Regresa – This song kicks off the more hopeful half of the mix. Buscabulla is a Puerto Rican married couple band. They wrote this song soon after they moved back to Puerto Rico from New York. This song is inspired by Nydia Caro, a Puerto Rican singer and actor, and is about depression and writer's block, with a hint of hope in some spoken lines at the end.
  9. Dua Lipa: "Don't Start Now" from Future NostalgiaIn perhaps the catchiest dance song of the year, one that feels in conversation with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," while the protagonist has suffered a break-up, she's taken control and figured out how to move on, even when her ex wants to come back. I have to love that prominent bass line in the chorus—and the way it drops out in the pre-chorus.
  10. Brian Ó hEadhra & Fiona Mackenzie: "Chan Eil mi gun Mhulad Orm" from Tuath: Songs of the NorthlandsThis Scots Gaelic song for waulking (the beating of woven wool to make it softer, usually done by groups of women) is about how even though the protagonist isn't getting married while everyone else is, they won't marry an old, ugly man—but instead hold out for a brainy lad. The accompaniment, which starts sounding a little like plucked strings, turns into a pretty awesome electronica background underneath a processed voice. The production also underlies the song's theme of not wanting to be stuck with the past.
  11. Twice: "Say Something" from Eyes Wide Open In this macaronic (a fancy way of saying it is in two languages) song from a K-Pop group, the protagonist is ready for something to happen between her and someone else and has a lot of hope that it will happen soon. I guess this is the year for disco nostalgia, though this has some 80s-facing touches, like the piano fills and the sax outro.
  12. Angelica Garcia: "Guadalupe" from Cha Cha Palace Here, our Latinx protagonist is seeing some inspiration for how she want to be—from the Virgin Guadalupe, a woman who holds power that doesn't come from her looks. This music hits you hard and features a lot of open fifths, which serves to highlight the religious theme.
  13. S2_Cool: "Shun the Yuck" from Shun the YuckYeah, I know, more updated disco. But it comes with an inspirational message. I know I'm done with all the "look at me." The intro grabs your attention and the flute is a cherry on top.
  14. Jeff Williams and Casey Lee Williams: "Trust Love" from RWBY, Vol. 7 (Music from the Rooster Teeth Series) – I got into this (admittedly ridiculous) American anime this year. I especially got into the music, the songs of which are by a Berklee School of Music professor and sung by his daughter. This is the opening credit song for season 7, which besides shredding, has another inspirational message—trust yourself and your friends and get to work. If Guitar Hero comes back, this one might be featured.
  15. Katy Perry – "Smile" from Smile Katy Perry has always been hit or miss for me, but this song was a big hit. While not written about the pandemic, there are certainly parallels. The message: sometimes, our trials end up making us better. This song always gives me an extra push when I'm out running.
  16. Childish Gambino: "47.48" from 3.15.20 Atlanta native Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino), fresh off winning the Record of the Grammy for "This is America," put out this album simply titled the date it came out, which was right when everything shut down. This final track (which started in 48th second of the 47th minute) is a letter (and conversation) to/with his son, the message being: the world has a lot of problems, especially for Black people, but can still be a great place.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

My Favorite New Albums of 2020

Despite the massive changes in how 2020 was lived, working from home for most of the year, I surprisingly listened to about the same amount of new music this year as last—I listened to 77 albums new to me this year (one more than last year), 56 of them produced in 2020. Also like last year, I am choosing to highlight seven of those new albums.

Before I start, I should acknowledge that I realize that with one exception, all the music here is was made by white people. The albums to which I listened were more diverse than this top seven selection might lead you to believe, and next week's best of 2020 mix will highlight more of that diversity. Though looking back at my top albums for 2017, 2018, and 2019, all the artists were also white (mostly American, but usually with a European group or artist). I think the lack of diversity in my top albums reflects the lack of diversity among musicians in my favorite genres, though perhaps I am just not hearing those with more diverse voices. I purchase audio recordings as part of my regular job, and the majority of the music I purchased this year was from Black artists. Two recordings featuring Black artists that got a lot of buzz this year you might want to check out are Run the Jewels 4 and Untitled (Black is...) from the mysterious collective SAULT.

I should also mention that I believe all the music on these seven albums was recorded before COVID—I didn't plan my favorites this way, it just happened—so this music wasn't written to address the pandemic; again, next week's best of 2020 mix will cover more of that ground. Instead, these albums cover themes of relationships (mostly failed ones), depression, leaving a small hometown, cultural exchange, and hybridity. And I enjoyed them pretty much from start to finish. Here they are, in order that they were released:

Honeymoon by Beach Bunny – This first full album from this Chicago indie group is raw and angry and depressing, but in a good way. Its tightly-constructed musical vignettes depict the breakup of a relationship. "Promises" and "Colorblind" are good entry points, though there is a lot disagreement about what the best tracks are—they're all good!

Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn – The pairing of banjo's first lady and a Chinese guzheng virtuoso seems strange, but Washburn studied Mandarin language and culture in college, frequently living in China. I first saw Fei and Washburn perform in a concert in Chapel Hill, NC, back in 2013, and the second half of the concert they decided to something totally experimental they called The Wu Force, which they described as "kung fu-Appalachian avant-garde folk-rock," some of which worked. While this album is not that genre, I think a couple of earlier versions of these songs were performed at that concert. I am surprised, though, that it took so long for them to record an album together. I love the conversation between the two folk traditions—and you can tell they are just having fun. Perhaps the best entry point to what they are doing is the opening track, "Water is Wide / Wusuli Boat Song," a melody of an American and a Chinese folk song.

Petals for Armor by Hayley Williams – I'd heard about Paramore, the band that Williams leads, but hadn't gotten into their music. But I heard a couple of songs from this solo album and needed to hear more. While still produced and written mostly by Williams with Paramore bandmates, the music on Petals for Armor is more complex, varied, and subtle than their previous work. The lyrics and music of the stylistically wide-ranging album bring you into the intimate thoughts of the protagonist(s), and then the hooks keep you thinking about the content. The album originally came out as three EPs of five songs each. "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris," a lyrically complex song that features background vocals from supergroup Boygenius, and the reggae-influenced and hummable "Dead Horse" are good entry points.

World on the Ground by Sarah Jarosz – I've been following this singer and multi-instrumentalist since 2015, when an algorithm pushed one of her albums to me, and this time the algorithm was totally spot on. This quiet, reflective album is not necessarily my favorite of hers, but it is still thoroughly enjoyable. It's somewhat autobiographical, about what happens when people leave the small Texas town where they grew up. "Johnny" is probably the best track, with some of the same feeling as "Green Light" from her previous album Undercurrent. The best lyrical turn comes on the chorus of "Maggie": "Drive across the desert in a blue Ford Escape; hopefully this car will live up to its name." I also love the waxwing oil color album art.

Women in Music, Pt. III by HAIM – Both of Haim's previous LP albums made my best-of-year lists, and while I'm not sure this album is quite as even as those previous albums, it is still a solid album with some great tracks—and perhaps more experimental in their musical and lyrical approach. While all the tracks are good, the 2nd half of the album really shines, such as "Man from the Magazine" about sexism in the music industry and the three "bonus" tracks which originally came out as singles in 2019. Warning: some swearing is involved.

Jump Rope Gazers by The Beths – This sophomore album by this New Zealand band grew on me with repeated listenings. It's impeccably produced, with just the right amount of harmony vocals. I love the audio irony of "I'm Not Getting Excited" and the chiming guitars in "Out of Sight," but the whole album shines.

Acid Croft, Vol. 9 by Shooglenifty – This is the psychedelic rock-fueled folk dance album that the world needs right now, from a veteran Scottish band. And with tune names like "Squat Lobster" and "Hunting for Angus," how can you go wrong?