Saturday, March 16, 2019

3 new Irish traditional music albums for your St. Patrick’s Day playlist

As I’ve written about before on this blog (here and here), I am not a big fan of the way most people celebrate St. Patrick’s day in the US. I think one of the best ways is to listen to Irish traditional music—and to help you celebrate, I’m presenting 3 new albums of Irish traditional music (all from the last year) that you can add your holiday playlist. In no particular order:

The Gap of Dreams by Altan – This group from Donegal has been around for over 30 years and is still coming out with great music. Tracks rotate between songs in Irish, English, and purely instrumental, both traditional newly composed. (If you follow the link to the Amazon page, notice that the artist is listed as “ATLAN”—a misspelling that hasn’t been corrected in the year the album has been out; funny if it wasn't so sad. Metadata fail.).

CAS by Lúnasa – This mainly instrumental band has been around for more than 20 years, but hasn’t released new music since 2010. Besides their typical awesome instrumental tracks, the band teams up with some guests vocalists such as Natalie Merchant and Mary Chapin Carpenter. All songs with vocals are sung in English.

Allt by Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway, and John McIntyre – Two power couples of Celtic traditional music, one couple from Scotland (Fowlis and Doorley) and one from Ireland (Conway and McIntyre) got together and recorded an album that includes songs from both places, in both Scots-Gaelic and Irish. So, maybe not purely Irish…but you probably can’t tell which are Irish and which are Scottish, right? I am not sure I can. Anyway, it is a great album.

Have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day, and remember to celebrate immigrant populations and our cultural inheritance from them, such as those, like the Irish, that used to be vilified in America.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Best pop songs of 2018 mix

Last post, I presented my top six albums of 2018. But there were plenty of new songs in 2018 not on those albums that I would recommend checking out. I made a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order).

Spotify playlist link:
  1. Kali Uchis: “Your Teeth in My Neck” from Isolation – The production is of this track is exciting (and a little retro), and its theme of wealth and class is equally retro/current.
  2. David Crosby: “1967” from Here If You Listen –The Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash is still writing music, and came out with a pretty good album with his much younger touring band. This track's production is a throwback, but comes across as still fresh.
  3. Gwenno: “Tir Ha Mor” from Le Kov – Gwenno’s 2nd album is entirely in Cornish, an almost dead language—so remember that writing good pop songs is a good way to make your almost-dead-language relevant again. The song's title means "land and sea."
  4. Tune-Yards: “Heart Attack” from I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – This album, written partially in response to criticism about lead singer Merrill Garbus’s cultural appropriation, came out at the beginning of 2017, so I think some reviewers forgot about the album. But it had some great cuts, like this one.
  5. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “Koino Hana” from Japamyu – I had to throw in a J-Pop song from fashion icon's Kyary’s latest album this year.
  6. Oh Pep: “What’s The Deal with David?” from I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… – An upbeat, funny song about a toxic relationship.
  7. Alessia Cara: “All We Know” from The Pains of Growing – The best track from a solid sophomore album from last year’s Best New Artist Grammy-winner.
  8. Courtney Barnett: “Nameless, Faceless” from Tell Me How You Really Feel – A solid anthem for the #MeToo movement, describing and reacting to anonymous online comments by men; featuring a Margaret Atwood quote in the chorus.
  9. Poppy: “Time is Up”  from Am I a Girl? – I love a bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction in my pop music; I for one, also, welcome our new robot overlords.
  10. Moira Smiley: “Bellow” from Unzip the Horizon – Written with Merrill Garbus from Tune-Yards, it draws influences from world music and invites women especially to speak up for themselves and their ancestors.
  11. Sting and Shaggy: “Crooked Tree“ from 44/876 – You probably missed this, but Sting and Shaggy came out with an album of new music in 2018 (and it was nominated for Reggae album of the year by the Grammys?). The album's music is mostly uninspired, but I have the admire Sting’s audacity to do a reggae album with a Jamaican after making his career doing “white reggae” with the Police in the 1980s. This song was maybe the best, and probably the most Sting-like. Read the NPR review of the album here.
  12. (Honorable mention) Natalia Lafourcada: “Hasta La Raíz ” from Hasta La Raíz - This song by a Mexican artist was actually from 2012, but I discovered it this year, and it’s definitely my favorite song I discovered this year (actually, a large portion of my new favorite music that I discovered this year wasn’t from 2018). Here’s the weird music video:

Saturday, January 5, 2019

My favorite new pop music albums of 2018

So, yeah, still bad at posting on the blog in 2018, but that doesn't mean I have stopped listening critically to music! I listened to 67 albums new to me this year, and 41 of those albums came out in 2018 (and I very rarely listened to an album only once). Here are my six favorite new albums from this year, in no particular order (all images link to the listing).

Golden Hour

Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves – Hands down my best album of the year, and I don’t consider myself a country fan—perhaps because Musgraves wasn’t very country-orthodox in her style for this album, mixing in drum machines, disco beats, and tall, jazzy chords. She also uses approachable, clever lyrics, filled with relatable emotion. Golden Hour made most top 10 lists this year and is so solid that I’m not really sure which track to start with—“High Horse,” though, is probably my favorite new song of the year (and has a strong disco influence). “Space Cowboy” is the surprise hit on the album, I think, and succeeds partly because of clever wordplay and poking gentle fun at country stereotypes. The frothiness and comedy of “Velvet Elvis” is a welcome addition.

I'll Be Your Girl

I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists – I count some Decemberists’ albums among my favorites, but there recently has been a dip in quality in their output—so I was surprised when they put out this solid album early in 2018. Their success this time around seems to be channeling their inner emo, angsty, fantasy-loving suburban teenager (despite having passed that stage themselves long ago). The upbeat, chipper “Everything is Awful” is the anchor single, with some fun antiphonal singing. “Rusalka, Rusalka  / Wild Rushes” is everything you would want in a classic Decemberists songepic folk rock storytelling ending in a death (maybe, two?) to catchy tunes.

All Ashore

All Ashore by Punch Brothers – Punch Brothers have yet to put out a bad album or EP, and Chris Thile tends to produce better music with collaborators. This group continues to push the boundaries of bluegrass, with innovative textures and song structures, some starting one place and ending in a very different place. The headliner is “All Ashore,” an expansive track that analyzes a seemly-broken family. “Three Dots and a Dash,” on the other hand, is a straight-ahead instrumental that could be from a Nickel Creek album. “Jumbo,” of course, is funny, elbow-in-ribs song about Donald Trump (with plausible deniability). I didn’t buy tickets to the Punch Brother’s live show in Atlanta this year because I wasn’t sure they could keep producing quality music, and then I listened to this album and regretted my decision (but the concert was already sold out).

Origins (Deluxe)

Origins by Imagine Dragons – Last year’s Imagine Dragons album, Evolve, made my best albums list last year, and I wasn’t prepared for another excellent album from the arena-fillers. They continue write catchy melodies and to find and invent new sounds throughout this album. Dan Reynolds’ vocals are somewhat unique in pop—and my theory is that he is taking some of varied word flows from hip-hop and incorporating them into Imagine Dragons' version of rock. Some entry tracks for this album (besides the hit, "Natural") are “West Coast,” where the group shows off their acoustic chops (including a mandolin?), and “Digital,” whose timbre and style turns on a dime—which I think it kind of the point in a song about “chang[ing] everything.” “Love” is an anthem against the current moment of resurgence of hate rhetoric in the U.S. Not sure what the music has to do with "origins," but cool cover art!

El Mal Querer

El Mal Querer by Rosalia – A critical darling this year by this young Catalan performer, this album got a lot of press for flamenco purists not liking it (though I never actually saw any of those negative reviews). Flamenco, with its showy vocals, fancy guitar playing, and complicated clapping is pretty awesome, and I think it is about time someone mixed it with hip-hopand Rosalia did it almost seamlessly. Two tracks to sample the mixture is “Pienso En To Mirá” and “Di Mi Nombre.” Supposedly, the album is organized around a manuscript from the 13th century, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

Kiss Yr Frenemies

Kiss Yr Frenemies by illuminati hotties – A thoughtfully-produced album (Sarah Tudzin, the brains behind the project, coming from a production background) masquerading as a indie garage band record, it features 11 poignant, well-phrased short stories (some under a minute). Standout tracks include “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” a well-paced post-breakup song, and “Paying Off the Happiness,” a happy Millennial lament about monetary and emotional debt. “The Rules” and “Patience” add some slow poignancy. The occasional semi-voiced vocal stylings, however, while well-intentioned, occasionally grate on my ear.

Later this week, I will post my best pop songs of 2018 mix, so get ready.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

It was 1 year ago today...Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans

One year ago, a duo called Pallette-Swap Ninja did the unthinkable—they merged two of the most well-loved and influential pieces of media of the last 50 years into one seamless whole. They did this by completely rewriting the lyrics to all the songs from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with lyrics about Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. And further, each song follows chronologically in order the plot of Star Wars. And then they made a *video* of the whole thingYes, I know I already blogged about Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans as one of my Favorite New Pop Albums of 2017. But it deserves revisiting on its anniversary date. I hope you didn't miss out on this amazing album last year. If you did miss out, I'm here for you. If you have already experienced it once, now is a good time to revisit!

The more I listen to Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans, the more impressive the feat is to me. Here are just a few examples of the amazing parody writing:
  • "Luke is in the desert and whining," is followed by "Whaaahh!"
  • "She's Leaving Home" is about Luke leaving Tatooine
  • Several times, instrumental solos are replaced with Star Wars themes—probably most effectively by inserting the cantina band music into "Being From the Space Port of Mos Eisley" 
  • "Within You Without You," a song originally about Eastern philosophy, is now about the mystic Force (with R2-D2 sounds used effectively to call-and-response with the sitar)
  • Instead of barnyard animal sounds at the end of "Keep Moving" ("Good Morning"), we get various sound clips from the escape from the Death Star
  • The reprise of Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans comes back just as the plans are needed again in the plot (and the inspired "One, Two, Yavin IV" countdown at the beginning)
  • In "A Day in the Life", "Then Obi-won spoke and I went into a dream" right before the high, dreamy vocalise music, and the Death Star exploding right at the iconic moment when the music reaches the top of the long orchestra crescendo
The audio is available as a free download. Props to Pallette-Swap Ninja for putting out something publicly that both Disney and Apple Music (fairly litigious organizations) might considering suing them for—even though the album clearly falls under fair use as parody.

May the 4th be with you (and check out their related Beatles-Star Wars single, Leia Organa).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Failure to critique hyper-masculinity in the Killers’ “The Man”

One of the top-selling albums of 2017 was The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful, which debuted no. 1 on the billboard charts in late September. The lead single on the album was “The Man”, released back in June 2017. “The Man” is a great song, with a catchy rhythm section and melody, certainly one of the best songs The Killers have produced. There is lots of room to breathe in the melody, and they have fun playing with all of that space. The form is interesting: the chorus doesn’t come in until 1:25 into the song, after two verses and some stalling, and this delayed entrance (the first time out of the tonic key) comes with a big payoff. The 2nd time around, the chorus (B) has this pretty awesome vocal-heavy extension (B2) that only comes back after the 3rd chorus and bridge (B–C–B2). Just a few more small touches that make the song: try just following the bass on a listen—it is just spare enough during the verse, and gets increasingly complex as the song progresses, raising the tension. And I think my favorite thing in the song is this rhythm guitar 16th note figure that only comes in during the 3rd chorus.

The video is pretty great, too—it presents several versions of lead singer Brandon Flowers (or perhaps one version in different timelines) in different hyper-masculine poses: as a sequined cowboy gambler, a Las Vegas show performer, a playboy, a wannabe motorcycle stunt artist, and a guy in a wife-beater grilling steak and shooting guns outside his trailer. By the end of the video, though, all of the versions of himself have been abandoned, thrown out, shown to be a facade, or failed in some other way. Through the video, “The Man” can be read as a self-deceptive ego-trip, a satire and critique of hyper-masculinity.

The problem with the song is, however, that separated from the video, the music and lyrics do not actually convey any critique of the masculine caricature it depicts. There is no lyrical content from the song that ever signals that the hyper-masculine is something to avoid—instead, the character claims that they’ve got nothing to learn, don’t need any help, and don’t care about anyone else. The lyrics never venture quite far enough into absurdity, or at least far enough that someone taking the song at celebratory face value would notice. The lyrics never show that “the man” does need help or is not at the top of the game. This is especially problematic given our cultural moment—for example, the #MeToo movement, who criticize the very type of entitled men described in “The Man”, a movement that gained steam just a few weeks after Wonderful Wonderful came out. 

The music doesn’t convey any satire, either. Music can provide irony (see my post from 2014 about BNL’s Shopping), but in “The Man”, while the rhythm section and falsetto background vocals borrow from disco (a historically un-masculine genre), the song swaggers throughout with fist-pumping facility. There is no attempt to take down “the man” musically. Sure, this type of swagger is what rock music is good at—one could argue that is the original point of the genre. But while the video suggests an attempt that the song is something other than a celebration of toxic masculinity, the source material doesn’t give any hint of that. For a song that is supposed to critique, it is entirely too easy to take it at face value.

By contrast, Sting’s best song on his latest album 57th and 9th was “Petrol Head”, a song also depicting hyper-masculinity, but instead with an automotive angle. It is a much more lyrically clever song and, while still not critiquing its masculine caricature much (there is a somewhat deprecating verse), the song is cheeky and inventive enough that its lack of critique is more forgivable—hyper-masculine people usually don't make lengthy allusions to Moses. Well, maybe Charlton Heston.

I’ll be listing to “The Man” for a while to come—after many repeated listens, I still haven’t gotten tired of it—but always with a grain of salt, and trying not to sing along with the toxic masculinity.

What do you think?