Saturday, March 12, 2022

Two 2021 Celtic album recommendations

Sometimes I come to albums in the next year after they were produced, and regret not putting them on my end-of-year lists (we really need to come up with a better system for this—maybe this year, best of 2022 and 2021 albums I finally heard?). This post features two albums from Fall 2021, both of them folk music. I'd say this was a St. Patrick's Day post, but neither of the albums I'm recommending are really connected to Ireland, though they might broadly be considered Celtic.

The first is Message in a Bottle by Ingrid Henderson, a Scottish harpist. No, it doesn't have anything to do with Sting's "Message in a Bottle"; instead, the album is inspired by an event in 2008, when "a nine year old boy from Armagh placed...a message in a bottle off Northern Ireland and ten years later it washed up on Canna [Scotland]" (there's your Irish connection). Henderson mixes her music with natural sounds, like the sea, and the rest of the album soothes like those natural sounds. Birds, sailors, and mermaids are featured topics. Besides instrumentals, there's singing in Scots-Gaelic and English, too. My two favorite tracks are dance music, though: "Jigs–Port na Culaidh & Port an Luig Mhòir" and "Reels–The Dance of the Storm Petrels & Swallows of the Sea." Also available on Bandcamp.

The second album is Reclaim by Mishra, a group from Sheffield, England. While their style is "traditional," their use of Indian tabla, banjo, low whistles, bass and clarinet (and sometimes bass clarinet) puts them solidly in the realm of "fusion." But it is not just the instrumentation; the melodies occasionally borrow from Indian music (and other traditional music). The songwriting might vary in quality, but the arrangements are always inventive and unexpected. Also available on Bandcamp.


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.