Thursday, December 21, 2017

Best pop songs of 2017 mix

Last post, I presented my top six albums of 2017. But there were plenty of new songs this year 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. Jonathan Coulton: “All This Time” from Solid StateSolid State may not have really worked as a concept album or graphic novel, but it had some good tracks, including this one, which is every bit as good as classic JoCo. Also check out the awesome video.
  2. Kesha: “Spaceship” from Rainbow – Kesha shows both her Nashville roots and her millennial sensibilities in this banjo-lead track, which could have been co-written by Sufjan. I didn’t know I needed a Country-SciFi track in my life, but apparently I did! This is for all those people who feel like they don’t belong here.
  3. Beck: “Dear Life” from Colors – I prefer the more upbeat Beck, and this track delivers, with its jaunty piano and unexpected chord progressions. Add some depressing lyrics for some cognitive dissonance for an excellent recipe. And of course, there is a quirky lyric video.
  4. Aimee Mann: “Patient Zero” from Mental Illness – My favorite track from Aimee Mann’s latest album. As always, she excels in clever wordplay—I really enjoy the musical layering at the end of the track. Listen closely to hear Jonathan Coulton singing backup.
  5. Sylvan Esso: “Radio” from What Now – A catchy, almost radio-friendly track that also critiques pop music and the industry, culture, and fame machine behind it. The quick detuning right at the beginning of the track warns that this isn’t a typical pop hit. I dare you to try *not* to dance. You can watch a live, completely re-imagined acoustic version of the track here. Warning: there is an explicit phrase in the 2nd verse.
  6. Somi: “Gentry" from Petite Afrique – Not many songs about gentrification, but this jazzy track about New York from an African immigrant hits home. The chorus features a masterful word trick switching between “I want it back” and “I want it black”, and also having the music devolve into African drumming. Somi has a great voice with a large range and color. 
  7. Halsey: “Now or Never” from Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Just a nice, tight, present pop song with a log of space.
  8. Chris Thile: “Falsetto” from Thanks for Listening – Thile puts the “false” in “falsetto” in this ode to the age of “fake news” from his album of collected Songs of the Week, originally heard on Prairie Home Companion, which is now called Live from Here. Extra credit for note placement of the word “falsetto” while Thile sings into his falsetto. And as always, good mandolin work. Is “Froggy” a symbol of the alt-right or Trump…?
  9. Lorde: “Supercut” from Melodrama – I really like the concept of this song—looking back on a relationship and seeing only the good things in a relationship, like a highlight reel, but then remembering that there were some bad parts, too; but maybe those the good parts were worth the bad parts? The pre-chorus is the best part of the song, a welcome interruption leading to a simple but effective chorus.
  10. I’m With Her: “Little Lies” from Little Lies —This is the title track from the first EP of this acoustic newgrass supergroup of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. I was able to see them perform this summer, and their music is all about the magic of the three voices working together. This song is delightfully quirky, starting and ending in an expected place. I’m excited about their first full album coming out next year. Note: I’m With Her as a band name was coined before the Hilary Clinton campaign adopted the motto. Here's a link to the YouTube video.
  11. U2: “The Blackout” from Songs of Experience – U2 keeping it simple doing what they are good at, with a rocking, sing-along song about our political moment, both in the US and the UK. Check out the video, too.
  12. Taylor Swift: “New Year’s Day" from Reputation – If you can get past the sex and myth-making on Reputation (can Taylor write a song not about her “Taylor Swift” character on a Taylor Swift album?), the music is actually pretty good, overall better than her last album, 1989, though perhaps without the stand-out hits. This statement from my review of 2012's Red is still true: “most of Taylor Swift's songs are invitations to ride on her emotions. What I think she's best at is bringing out (or bringing back) strong emotions from the past or present." I think this is still true on Reputation—it is just that a few of the emotions petty and/or shallow or otherwise hard to relate to. This song is one of the exceptions, with Swift back to her country-esque confessional mode instead of her trying-to-be-R&B-catty-mode. On a somewhat unrelated note: Swift really should have actually written a chorus for "Look What You Made Me Do".
Enjoy the playlist! And happy New Year! I’m hoping for more blog posts in 2018. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering how little I wrote this year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My favorite new pop music albums of 2017

It's been a while since I last posted, but now is a good time to catch up and review music from this past year. I’m going to stick with popular music for this post, mostly because that is what I’ve been listening to the most, and thanks to a trial of Amazon’s music streaming service, I was able to listen to a lot more new music than normal—this year, I listened to 33 albums of music that came out in 2017. Here were my 6 favorite albums, in no particular order. Strangely, I don’t think many of them made it on other year-end lists I’ve seen:

Binary by
Ani DiFranco – It is rare for an established artist like DiFranco to come out with an album that is consistently good throughout. Experienced and successful artists often have to walk the thin line between sounding like their most old, successful, loved material, and still sounding new and not completely covering the same thematic ground. This is hard and not always successful (I’m looking at you, U2). But for this album, DiFranco was able to take inspiration from her past jazz-flavored material while delving into current topical themes. Standout tracks include “Play God” (first featured in the anti-Trump 30 Days 30 Songs website) and “Spider”. These are not vapid love songs; instead, you get to rock out while you rethink your place in the world; even the slow songs have music that keeps pace with the lyrical content, with unexpected instrument combinations.

Something to Tell You by Haim – I liked it a lot; you can read my review here. Six months after the review, the album still holds up.

The Search for Everything by
John Mayer – Originally released as two back-to-back EPs in January and February, this version was released as a combined album in April. I was a big fan of practically everything in Mayer’s first 3 albums, and every album release after that point, I checked in to see if his music has come back to form (besides  developing some skepticism about Mayer as a decent person). Finally, for album 7, I feel like he is producing music every bit as good as those early years. While the whole album is good, moving between blues- and country-inflected songs that still feel fresh after repeated listens, standout tracks include the catchy “Still Feel Like Your Man” and “Moving On and Getting Over”, each with especially solid guitar and bass work combined with unpredictable nuggets of musical form and timbre.

Ouï by
Camille – Speaking of artists that started strong and later disappointed, French singer Camille’s first two albums were really exciting and novel works of art. But her third album, produced entirely in English, felt like an album specifically designed to break into the US market and as such spectacularly failed, lacking the authenticity of the earlier albums. I lost track of Camille after that, but this year I caught wind of her latest, Ouï, a play on French for “yes” and the verb “to hear.” It is every bit as good as those first albums. While she has thankfully abandoned body percussion in favor of drum machines, her supreme, layered vocal delivery (sometimes looped, but not noticeably boringly looped) is still the focus. This album has a lot of variety from medieval to electronic; the album works well as a whole, but if I was forced to pick standouts, I’d say “Lasso” and “Twix”. Even the few songs in English don’t seem to pander.

Evolve by Imagine Dragons – Beside the big hits from Imagine Dragons’ previous albums, I really haven’t followed the band, despite them coming out of the music scene in my hometown, Provo, Utah. But I heard the lead single “Believer” and was impressed not only at the depth and vulnerability of the lyrics, but at the originality of the music (to start, how many pop hits are in compound meter?). I took one listen, and then many more listens, to the whole album and was impressed by how varied the album was. Despite being the typical 4-person rock band, each track sounded totally different and none were throwaway or forgettable. From the memorable sing-along chorus in “Walking the Wire” to the mostly-vocal drinking song “Yesterday” to the 80s throwback “Start Over”, this album felt like a classic from the first listen.

Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans by Palette-Swap Ninja – Maybe this is not technically new, being a re-working of old material, but I don’t care. I’m including it anyway as one of the best artistic creations of the last year. Having written a few parody songs, I know how hard it can be to write meaningful lyrics to extant music. And this is not simply a parody song but a parody album, completely rewriting all songs of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And not only is it an album, each song in order follows chronologically the plot of Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. And they made a *video* of the whole thing. Also amazingly, neither Disney nor Sony ATV has issued a take-down order. The first time I watched the video, I thought I was just going to dip in, but then could not stop watching. Every time I have listened or watched, I have marveled at the sheer creatively genius and basked in the ingenuity, besides being entertained. If you haven’t seen it, and especially if you need some Star Wars cool-off after The Last Jedi, give yourself a treat and watch the whole thing. And prepare to be amazed. You can also download the audio album for free. So why not? Here is the first track:

Later this week, I will be posting my Best of 2017 Mix, featuring a bunch of new songs this year from albums other than the ones featured here. So stay tuned! Not that a blog is a radio! So maybe stay Facebooked!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Album Review: HAIM, Something to Tell You

When I listened to HAIM’s 2013 first album Days Are Gone for the first time, I was enjoying myself too much to examine what the music was actually doing. 3.5 years later, Days Are Gone still sounds as fresh as it did when I first heard it—it still is in my album rotation and I keep hearing new things when I listen to it. I didn’t really understand the backlash against the album—for instance when Jim DeRogatis from Sound Opinions said that the album had "too many hooks,” to which I responded “Complaining that an album has too many hooks is like complaining that a novel has too many well-written sentences.” 

Now, HAIM has a brand new album, Something to Tell You, with plenty of new well-written musical sentences, along with some stellar and varied production. Many reviews have been placing this new album squarely in the past, the basic premise being: the music itself doesn't have much new to say, but it is good music. I think that is not quite right—Tom Breiham, in his Stereogum review, put it better, suggesting that "HAIM’s music doesn’t even belong to a genre" because it draws from so many influences and it constructs from these blocks meticulously and seamlessly. And what is new music, but reconfiguring things from the past? But like many music other reviewers, Breihan did not offer up many specific musical elements that were borrowed (though he did point out some little production gems). It's the comparative trap that so many music critics fall back to—using a band name comparison as a shorthand without explaining the connection, as if bands weren't multi-faceted.

Instead of taking time to point out the borrowings (which I'm sure are not easy to explain, anyway, and is why critics are avoiding doing it), I want to highlights a few great moments in the album that to me seem innovative:
  • After maybe the twelfth time I listened to “I Want Back,” I was trying to figure out why the song didn’t get boring since there is so much repetition of the short chorus phrase. Besides a lot of the accompanying parts shifting around the melody, I finally noticed that in the 2nd half of the song, the bass line hardly ever comes back to tonic. Besides keeping us wanting more repetition to get back to tonic, it also musically underlines that this person the song is addressing has not, in fact, come back yet. When the final move to tonic happens, it’s with a very thin acoustic strum with some sped-up melody lines (perhaps the melody backwards?) that are just kind of thrown out. The video for this track is pretty good too—catchy, difficult to film, and understated:
  • In “Little of Your Love,” there’s a great guitar line that is hinted at, but really only fully realized during the fade-out—leaving us feeling like they are conveying the message: “hey, this song is just as rocking as a we wanted it to be” and leading us to want more.
  • In “Ready for You,” probably the catchiest song on the album, there are kind of two choruses (which forgives a somewhat uninspired 1st chorus that turns out to be a pre-chorus). In the “2nd” chorus, the vocal harmony parts are so well written, first staying high and then filling out the middle part for the title phrase “I wasn’t ready for you.” At the end of the bridge, there is a weird chromatic descending vocal part leading to a pretty trippy breakdown of the “2nd” chorus. Throughout the song, there is an amazing amount of space in the beat (especially in the verse) that allows for lots of playing—maybe this is what can happen when drummers write songs.
  • “Right Now” starts out with what seems like a spare 4-beat, but when the harmony voices come in, you aren’t quite so sure—maybe the bass drum is hitting on beat 3, instead? Or maybe the song is in 3 instead of 4? The whole song keeps the listener guessing where the bottom of the beat is. According to an NPR interview, this song was actually designed to have all three HAIM sisters playing drums, which was their first instrument—the fluidity of the beat certainly lends itself to that. It is not often you hear that a pop song was developed to solve a musical or performance puzzle, instead of to express an emotion or thought.

Finally, a general comment about the album: a close listen reveals a lot of vocal manipulation and sampling—pushing voices high, or low, autotuned, sped up, thrown into low-fi, made to sound like a guitar or extra reverb added for just one note (this alone should place the album squarely in the present). There is so much variation, I can’t help but think that every decision was purposeful. The instrumental decision are similar—several times in the album thick textures will fall away for a dramatic effect, leaving an instrumental texture we haven’t heard before.

I don’t think this album has as many memorable moments or a well-written songs as Days Are Gone (and perhaps too many sudden endings), but Something to Tell You has musical as well as relationship message to convey and is still a great listen all the way through that keeps on giving. I recommend a listen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Parody and copyright, pt. 2: When the copyright owner holds all the chips

Last March, I wrote about my experience posting a parody music video on YouTube. I got some encouragement from my readers to dispute EMI’s copyright claim to the music video, and so I went ahead and submitted my dispute. When I entered the dispute process, YouTube presented me with a list of pre-selected possible arguments for the dispute. I selected the option “this video uses copyrighted material in a manner that does not require approval of the copyright holder. It is fair use under copyright law,” then wrote a very brief explanation that this music video was a parody and protected under Fair Use. Here's a screenshot of my dispute submission:

At the top of the screenshot, you see the tail end of the 20(!) organizations that have a copyright claim on “Dynamite.” Also, note the threatening language of terms and conditions.

I got a response from YouTube only a few days later in an email: “After reviewing your dispute, Sony ATV Publishing has decided that their copyright claim is still valid.” They are keeping my video up and continuing to monetize it—exactly what they were doing before. I wasn’t given an exact reason, but instead a list of two possible reasons:

    •    The copyright owner might disagree with your dispute.
    •    The reason you gave for disputing the claim may have been insufficient or invalid.

In other words, the publisher itself (notice the official copyright claimant has changed from EMI to Sony ATV—Sony ATV owns EMI publishing, but I'm not sure why the initial claim when through as EMI and then changed during the dispute) made the sole legal judgement about the Fair Use of their own intellectual property. There is no outside or impartial judge making these decisions—the publisher has all the power. So unless the publisher decides that the music used is a completely different composition (and maybe not even then), they have no incentive to grant the appeal. Further, though I needed to give a reason for the dispute, they didn’t even need to give a reason why the dispute was turned down. I think it is very possible Sony ATV didn’t actually watch the video—instead, they probably researched the person who filed a dispute (me) to see if they had a lawyer. The whole process is fishy, but YouTube probably agreed to the process for two reasons: 1) it is two expensive to hire their own lawyers to handle the appeals, and 2) the publishers have the financial power to slap YouTube with a very expensive lawsuit, whether right or wrong, and YouTube would rather be making money on the videos.

Now, there is a process to appeal the dispute decision, but from what I understand, the stakes are higher:

If I appeal, there is no option of keeping the video up—either I win and the video stays up without monetization, or it gets taken down. But for the publisher, the decision is exactly the same the second time around—and since I don’t have a lawyer, there is still no incentive for the publisher to do anything but deny my claim again. As I would prefer to have my video up, making a very small amount of money for Sony ATV, I’m not planning on doing filing a second appeal.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Program Notes: Motets and Cantatas of Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, April 22nd, 2017 at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.
Graphic design by Katherine Fisher; art by Felix Mendelssohn
The definition of “motet” varies widely according to time and place. While the term was originally used in medieval times to describe a piece in which one part sang different words and rhythms than the other three, the genre evolved over centuries, changing form and transitioning from sacred to secular and back to sacred. By the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, motets differed by country (France, Italy, and Germany had their own traditions) and even by Christian denomination within countries. For Bach, the motet was the smaller, less operatic, dying antecedent of the cantata, the genre that occupied a large portion of his output. Like his cantatas, Bach’s motets were self-contained musical sermons featuring both known chorales and biblical quotations, but they were usually written for special occasions outside of regular church services.* Written in this tradition, Jesu, meine Freunde (Jesus, My Joy) alternates between re-harmonized chorale verses and New Testament texts that comment on the preceding chorale texts. Bach sets up an overarching parallel musical structure for the eleven movements in the work, with the form AbCdEfEdCbA (the bold, uppercase letters represent the six chorale verses, which also have parallel harmonizations). F, the center section, is an expansive fugue with its own short chorale postlude.
For Johannes Brahms, calling a work a “motet” mainly set it apart as a Protestant religious
text and was meant to draw a line in listeners’ minds back to Bach’s motets. Zwei Motetten (Two Motets), Opus 29, represents a deliberate attempt to write using Baroque techniques. In the second motet of Opus 29, “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (“Create a pure heart within me, O God”), Brahms gave himself very strict compositional restrictions—for instance, in the first section, the top soprano part is exactly the same as the bottom bass part, only twice as fast, and the third section features two outside parts singing a strict canon but offset by one measure and a whole step—but each is so masterfully conceived that this is hard to hear even when the audience knows. The second and fourth sections are more traditional fugues, with Romantic twists.
Bach’s cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I Will Gladly Carry the Cross) was also a sermon for Sunday service, written for solo baritone and a small ensemble. The text uses sailing imagery to talk about the trials of life and the joy of uniting with Christ in death, probably inspired by the final chorale verse, taken from Johann Franck’s “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude” (1653). Felix Mendelssohn was a key player in the Bach revival of the early nineteenth century, and perhaps Brahms would not have revered Bach so much without Mendelssohn’s promotional efforts. Like Brahms later, Mendelssohn copied aspects of Bach’s music in his compositions, as evidenced by his chorale cantatas, which take as their starting place known chorales: one voice sings the chorale tune, while the other three voices and the string quartet create quick, contrapuntal textures around (and before and after) the slow-moving chorale. Curiously, though called a cantata, this form resembles the original, medieval motet perhaps more than Bach’s motet. In “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, My Joy”), the chorale is sung in the soprano part; in Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (Whoever Lets Only the Dear God Reign), Mendelssohn expands the formula with simple chorale presentations at the beginning and end of the work and a larger second movement featuring florid counterpoint set around the chorale tune, this time in the bass. Mendelssohn also adds a short soprano aria before the final chorale.

*Christoph Wolff, “Motet: III. Baroque: 3. Germany,” Grove Music Online, Oxford University
Press, accessed April 9, 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What happens when you post a parody video on YouTube? Copyright, that’s what

When fake lyrics are better than real lyrics

More than six months ago, I posted a YouTube video that had been at least two years in the making. Around 2014, a misheard a phrase in Taio Cruz’s pop hit “Dynamite.” “Gotta let go” changed to “Galileo” (a leap I was not the first person to make), which eventually grew into “Ganymede,” a parody song about the four largest moons of the planet Jupiter. The new parody lyric was memorable while being educational, and also had the advantage of actually rhyming. After I put the lyric to paper, I realized that I wanted to share with a wider audience, but the lyric sat while I tried to find someone else to perform the music and make a video. Last summer, 2016, I realized a music video wasn’t going to happen unless I made it myself, so I bit the bullet, taught myself GarageBand and iMovie, and made it. Here’s the final product:

This treatment is not a cover, but a parody—instead of putting my own spin on someone else’s artistic vision, this parody derives humor from the music being recognizable. Because of this, I put a lot of effort trying to recreate the sounds of "Dynamite" with the tools that came prepackaged in GarageBand (though I transposed it down a minor third to fit my voice), with mixed results.

Wait, is that legal?

Something interesting happened less that 48 hours after I had privately posted the video on YouTube—YouTube’s music algorithm identified the song as “Dynamite acapella cover” and additionally, EMI music claimed the song as their property and then optioned it for monetization (meaning they put a commercial in front of it). I was impressed that the algorithm was correct in identifying the song title, even if the version was wrong, but is EMI correct in claiming ownership of the music?

Recorded music actually has two copyrights—one for the underlying musical composition (usually controlled by the publishers) and one for the actual recording (usually controlled by the producers); that is why when someone records a cover, they still need to get copyright permission from the songwriters. In my case, it is the publishers (EMI) that asserted their rights over the underlying composition of “Dynamite” on the basis that it's cover version.

But parodies are a special case: in order to make their comic point, they need to borrow music, otherwise the joke doesn’t make sense. Courts have protected parodies under copyright Fair Use, which is a legal doctrine in copyright law that allows use of copyrighted material in a limited way, usually with a transformational intent. Fair Use is how we can quote other copyrighted works without asking permission or getting sued all the time; or how the news can show video clips; or we can xerox parts of a book—the point is we are not using the copyrighted material to steal financial or other gain from someone else, but critiquing it, putting into another context, or changing it into something else.

Fair Use is complicated, but to boil it down, parody is protected because it conveys a transformational message that can only be accomplished by using a fairly large portion of the original material. This 2012 article from Library Journal (also a good introduction to some of the problems of posting a parody video) raises another important point—defining something as parody can be tenuous. Parody has to make fun of the material itself, instead of just being satire (which is not protected). Does one need to ask for permission to write a parody, though, like Weird Al does? The answer is no; asking permission is not a legal requirement for Fair Use. Also, if people could sue you just because you made fun of them, it would be curbing free speech.

A new approach

Since 2012, publishing companies have realized that putting down take-down notices on YouTube videos is unsustainable, bad PR, and might even squelch free advertising. Instead, they’ve just decided to monetize these videos, which is what happened with my music video "Ganymede." The YouTube algorithm, though, analyzes music, not lyrics, so it will automatically flag anything that sounds like the original, regardless of if it a parody or not. This is a big problem with the system. There is a mechanism to dispute the copyright claim, but most people don’t have the time or money for the legal battle which may ensue or just don't understand copyright law (and can you blame them?) The result is that these companies make money off of someone’s else work.

I believe “Ganymede” is a parody and should be protected under Fair Use, but on the other hand, I’m not interested in making money. Six months after posting, the video still only has less than 200 views, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any viral YouTube fame. I'm not planning on disputing the claim at the moment.

But the video was fun to make and I learned a lot about making music—and copyright.

What do you think? Should I dispute EMI’s copyright claim?

Update 6/26/2017: I decided to dispute the claim; you can read about what happened here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Album Review: Sting, 57th and 9th

Click to view on Amazon

Regular readers are probably wondering: “Didn’t a new Sting album come out a few months ago? How come SSF hasn’t reviewed it?” Well, those people are right; it has taken me a while to get around to writing up a review for Sting’s latest album 57th and 9th, which came out in November 2016. The truth is, despite this being the first rock album from Sting in more than a decade, it didn’t make much of splash. For example, it didn’t make anyone’s end-of-the-year list. I think there’s probably a good reason for the snub—the album was somewhat thrown together quickly (which was unwisely billed as a strength), and the lack of polish in the production and songwriting was evident in sometime unoriginal or staid music.

57th and 9th should not be dismissed outright, however; while perhaps not writing at the same level of Ten Summoner’s Tales (probably his best solo album), in 57th and 9th, Sting is for the most part not just sitting on his laurels by producing bad copies of his earlier music. Each new song gives us listeners something to grapple with, either musically or thematically.

“Petrol Head” is the best song on the album; not only is it the song with the most energy (in two senses), but it doesn’t seem like it was hastily written or built. It has a catchy little melody, a nice tight little contrasting bridge section, and is chalk-full of religious and mythic imagery and reference. It also is probably both the most humorous and nuanced song on the album—both celebrating and poking fun of the macho road warrior of the American highway. I’m flummoxed why this song wasn’t picked as the lead single (maybe someone thought the references came too densely?). One of Sting’s songwriting strengths especially apparent in this song is that the chorus is not some monolithic block that comes back the same every time—when a chorus returns, he will often change up the words or even add phrases to the melody for emotion and musical impact.

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Heading South on the Great North Road” (the second best song on the album) was a reject song from The Last Ship—at least it comes from the same spiritual place of Newcastle and a trail of migration for better opportunity. The title conveys a great image—dripping with failed dreams, disappointment and heartache, and a golden age lost. It succeeds in the folk song genre where “Pretty Young Soldier” (discussed below) fails, with enough verses for an emotional journey.

For the topical challenges, “One Fine Day” takes on climate change, a topic sadly in need of more good songs, and while this song could be catchier, I’m sure it will be a regular at Greenpeace gatherings and other similar events. “Inshallah” is a solid song; a sympathetic lullaby telling the story of refugees who at great risk boat to Europe for a better life, and the Oscar-nominated “The Empty Chair” is from a film about a journalist who was captured, held captive, and then killed by ISIS.

Other songs don’t quite live up to these; “I Can’t Stop Thinking about You,” the lead single, is a solid song with some surprises in the form and some twists in the verse lyrics, though the chorus is somewhat unimaginative. “Pretty Young Soldier” is Sting’s take on a cross-dressing folk song from 18th-century England—but the song isn’t quite long enough for this genre, and the chorus tries to moralize the cross-dressing in some strange way. “50,000” is probably the weakest song, and I could understand if critics stopped listening to album after hearing this, the second album track. It is more navel-gazing than I think Sting’s audience is ready for. Also, I have the same complaint with this song as I did with the last Taylor Swift album—a string of the same repeated notes does not make a good melody. He doesn’t even try to spice up the note with a catchy rhythm.

I got to see Sting in a live show a week before the album came out, and while he was mostly playing his greatest hits (he did play two from the new album), he doesn’t like to keep things the same. He changed things up, tries new things, and keeps the audience thinking. 57th and 9th, though somewhat flawed, still does that, too. It was not disappointing to have a little more original new music, and I would recommend it to those who have liked Sting in the past. There’s even a song in a mixed meter! (“If You Can’t Love Me,” in 7).

What did you think of the album?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Top album from 2016—Kero Kero Bonito: Bonito Generation

Check out the album here
One thing I’ve noticed reviewing many 2016 best of the year lists is that beyond a few stand-outs (Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table) and a few that get frequently mentioned (Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean) there is very little consensus about what last year’s top albums were. Frequently, every top 10 list had a few albums that did not show up on any other list.

With this post, I will review one of my top albums of 2016 that I didn’t see on anyone’s list: Kero Kero Bonito’s sophomore album, Bonito Generation.

Kero Kero Bonito is a British band with lead singer Sarah Midori Perry and two producers Gus Lobban, and Jamie Bulled. Sarah is half-Japanese and sings and raps in both Japanese and English. The music, while influenced by J-Pop and British dance music, is really a thing unto itself.

While Kero Kero Bonito’s first album (Intro Bonito) was more about setting up beats, textures, and the hybrid Japanese/English delivery than songwriting, Bonito Generation makes a big leap forward into great, unpredictably-structured songs with memorable hooks and melodies. Further, the production is imaginative, varied, and keeps you guessing.

While the tone of the vocals may have a lot in common with a kids' album, many of the songs are actually for adults in an era where many young adults feel they are still trying to figure out life (“adulting”). I can understand that someone might find the vocal delivery annoying, but combined with the subject matter explored, for me it is endearing. Bonito Generation sets itself apart from 95% of pop music in having zero songs focus on romantic love—instead, the album presents a manual about how to go through life, all through unpretentious, catchy songs. There are songs about not wanting to get out of bed (“Waking Up”), moving away from home to the big town (“Big City”), hearing a great song on the radio (“Heard a Song”), trying to get a job (“Try Me”), taking breaks (“Break”), (over-)taking pictures (“Pictures”), and about keeping in touch with your parents (“Hey Parents”), among others. 

The best track is “Trampoline,” which takes a lowly kids' plaything and turns it into a metaphor for life’s ups and downs—and how you should not get stuck on the ups or the downs—all while just being the catchiest song of the year.

“Lapslap,” while not my favorite track, is probably the most experimental and fresh song on the album and continues to grow on me.

While the so-so rapping and English lyrics could have use a bit more effort—especially with the (lack of) rhyming—most of the time the non-sappy, straightforward delivery works well with the music and subject matter. While I recognize this type of hybrid British/J-Pop/kids-music-for-adults is not for everyone, it is exactly up my alley. I’d recommend checking Bonito Generation out.