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?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Album Review: Taylor Swift's Folklore—cool songwriting experiments, but overusing tricks


People who (still) read this blog know that I can't NOT review a new Taylor Swift album (though my review of 2017's Reputation was just done in a "best pop songs of 2017" post); this includes the surprise release of Folklore in late July. As she did with Red, Taylor cultivated new sounds by inviting new collaborators, this time The National's Aaron Dessner and others. She is also more explicitly songwriting the stories of other people (though she has actually been doing that for a long time). 

Like many of the glowing reviews I've read, I agree this is not a bad album; the production and arrangements keep interest, like the subtle, string-like effects on "Cardigan." The songwriting is often complex: verses made of up many chained subphrases that build over time, like in "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," and return sometimes unpredictably; in the layered duet in the last half of "Exile" with Bon Iver, the melodies accentuates important words; "Mirrorball" has a verse and chorus that both sound like choruses. There is some great lyric writing ("My Tears Ricochet" about her split with her label, Big Machine records) and nice turns of phrase (like "I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere" in "This is Me Trying.")

On the other hand, after listening a few times, I am not sure that any of these songs are going to jump back into my head like many of Swift's other songs (I just had a "Cruel Summer" from 2019's Lover stuck in my head this week). At 16 tracks, this is a long album, and some of the songs seem a little longer than they need to be, maybe a little more contemplative than I prefer.

Songwriting staples, connecting but more blandly than necessary

While Swift is still using “devils roll the dice” motif that plagued Lover and Reputation, at least the motif is not used quite as prominently or often. The most obvious use is in "Peace," where it was employed almost exactly as in previous Swift songs. The motif occurs repeatedly in the chorus of "Cardigan," mostly in its downward form. It is also in the pre-chorus of "Mad Woman." 

But Swift has a new songwriting strategy that would, again, be fine if she used sparingly, but instead she uses it over and over on Folklore. Her chained subphrase strategy of writing (mentioned earlier) often puts these long phrase structures over the same repeated chord patterns, sometimes even into the chorus—this leads to choruses that don't arrive as forcefully, and songs seeming longer and less varied than they might be. Songs on Folklore that fit this pattern: "The 1," "Cardigan," "Mirrorball," "Seven," "August," "Peace," and "Hoax"—that's almost half the album using this songwriting strategy. The production tries to obscure the laziness of the chord changes, and mostly succeeds, but I am left with tracks with too much sameness. Even "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," though they vary up the chords with the subphrase chains, end up with very little contrast.

The bright spots

I think three songs rise above the crowd in Folklore
  1. "The Last Great American Dynasty" is a great story song with a conventional song structure—but the story pulls us along, as we wonder if something horrible is going to happen to the described woman. But at the end, instead of condemning her, Taylor connects herself to the supposed misbehavior, critiquing those who think women (especially rich women) should behave a certain way ("Mad Woman" is another explicitly feminist song, with a similar "pot calling the kettle black" message). 
  2. "Invisible String" almost falls into the chained-subphrases-over-the-same chord trap, but Swift varies up the chord changes in the middle of the verse megaphrase, and throws in a nice contrasting bridge (I think we could have an argument about whether there is a chorus at all; the catchy melisma, perhaps the best candidate for a chorus, seems to use the same chords as the beginning of the verse). The plucked string texture that pervades the song is lovely. And to add a bit more interest, the chord pattern changes over the last return of the melisma, reminiscent of the chords used in the bridge, taking us out of the song à la "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" (the “devils roll the dice” motif also occurs in "Invisible String," but only briefly and in the middle of a phrase; somewhat disguised, at least). 
  3. The production and songwriting of "Betty" reminds me of Fearless, which I'm sure is intentional, since Swift is telling a high-school story similar to the songs on that album. It's pretty amazing she can recall that style. I wonder what would happen if Swift next tried to write a whole album pretending to be her teenage songwriter self? Not that I think she should, if she didn't want to.
What did you think of Folklore?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Favorite tracks of 2019 mix

Last postI presented my top six albums of 2019. But I wanted to share additional songs not on those albums that you should check out, so I made a mix. 2019 featured a bumper crop of socially-conscious songs, probably more than any other year since the late 60s, and I included some of my favorites in the playlist. I left off Billie Eilish and Lizzo, however, because they seemed omnipresent already. Here’s a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order):

  1. Ariana Grande: “NASA” from thank u, next – My favorite album from Grande’s quick Sweetener follow-up. Also, space exploration as metaphor is up my alley.
  2. Molly Tuttle: “Take the Journey” from When You’re Ready – Tuttle is the reigning Bluegrass guitar virtuoso. Check out her flying fingers playing this song here.
  3. Avril Lavigne: “Bigger Wow” from Head Above Water – Did you know that Avril Lavigne is still writing some decent music? Here’s an example.
  4. Jamila Woods: “BETTY” from Legacy! Legacy! – Each song on Woods’ sophomore album is inspired by a historical figure, many of whom were black. This one is inspired by funk musician Betty Davis, who was “not your typical girl.”
  5. Santana and Buika: “Bembele” from Africa Speaks – Yeah, Santana’s still making music, too. He worked on this album with Afro-Spanish singer Buika.
  6. Tacocat: “Hologram” from This Mess Is a Place – My favorite palindrome-named pop-punk band put out a great album this year mostly addressing the politics of 2019 and this is probably the best song on it; the message is that power can be an illusion.
  7. Sheryl Crow and St. Vincent: “Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” from Threads – Yes, Sheryl Crow put out music this year, too (this time with a bunch of collaborators), and this great song sounds like classic Crow and reminds me of Veronica Mars.
  8. MUNA: “Number One Fan” from Saves the World – Maybe the most catchy and danceable song of 2019, it also is self-affirming.
  9. Common Holly: “Joshua Snakes” from When I Say to You Black Lightning – The first line of this all-over-the-place song about an abusive relationship got my attention. The flute solo is a plus.
  10. Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening: “O-U-T Spells Out” from Hollowbone – A combination rock folk song and magic spell with a Northumbrian bagpipe solo/dance break.
  11. Coldplay: “Orphans” from Everyday Life – I am usually not a Coldplay fan (they don’t really know how to write bridges), but this song is pretty good—and it is written from the perspective of war refugees, who are normal people, too. The song even has a bridge—sort of.
  12. Twice: “Fancy” from Fancy You – You have probably heard of BTS, but Twice is another K-pop idol group you should know about. The form is fun—I’m not sure if the song has two pre-choruses or just a long two-part chorus. Also, definitely a bridge.
  13. Karine Polwart and Seckou Keita: “Heartwood” from The Lost Words: Spell Songs – A group of folk musicians read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words about many nature-related words dropped from the 2007’s Oxford “Junior” Dictionary, and were inspired to create a companion album of songs; this song comes from the perspective of tree inviting the lumberjack to give up.
  14. Taylor Swift: “The Man” from Lover – Swift’s first album tackling social issues includes this great song, probably my favorite from the album, addressing sexism in the music industry.
  15. Amanda Palmer: “A Mother’s Confession” from There Will Be No Intermission – Looking at my top music from this year, I am apparently a fan of 10-minute story songs, and this is an expressive one from Amanda Palmer about being a new mother. I went to Palmer’s tour, which featured her performing this song (with a sing-a-long section), plus a version of Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” figuratively sung by an unborn fetus. The part-standup show was almost four hours long; luckily, there was an intermission.