Music Monday Top 5: Favorite Albums of 2011

Of all the different forms of media I have consumed in the past year, music was right at the top. (Well, probably podcasts were first and then music. Comic books round out the top three.) A lot of it was finding things that I had missed out on – Sufjan Stevens’ albums, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Anamanaguchi, Fitz and the Tantrums, and the much-beloved M. Ward, for example. But some of this year’s music was actually from this year, and some really struck me.

I do want to note that three rap albums – Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, Childish Gambino’s Camp, and Das Racist’s Relax – were all considered for this list, but each missed the cut for different reasons. I really enjoyed Watch The Throne, though not to the same degree I liked Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and certainly not to the degree the gravitas of the project seemed to demand; that said, it’s probably number 6 on the list. I’ve only heard the first half of Camp so far, though it’s pretty damn good. Finally, Relax didn’t seem to jive with me as much as Das Racist’s first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude, did – it wasn’t the kind of album where the rapping was particularly remarkable, at least not as much as their debut.

With that said, here’s my five favorite albums of 2011:
5. Alabama Shakes – Alabama Shakes EP

I belabored quite a bit over including this on the list, because it’s only four tracks, but the Alabama Shakes’ debut is the kind of production where you want the band to get back into the studio and record a full album right now. Band leader Brittany Howard has an incredibly emotional, powerful voice – and some pretty substantial guitar skills (as seen here), to boot – and the country-rock band works really well together. The Alabama Shakes have the talent to be pretty big in the next couple of years.

My favorite song on the EP is the second track, “I Found You”:

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver reminds me of how ridiculous the Grammy Award for Best New Artist has become. Among this year’s field for the award are The Band Perry, whose hit single “If I Die Young” was first released in June 2010 and whose album squeaked in under this year’s Grammy purview by only a month; Skrillex, whose third solo album came out this year (to be fair, it is kind of awesome that a dance music artist like Skrillex was nominated – I suppose the only thing more surprising than that would have been for Girl Talk’s album All Day to have been nominated for a Grammy); and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, which began in 2008 with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that received fairly widespread critical acclaim.

In any case, Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work is a remarkable shift from For Emma. Now featuring an actual band (instead of Vernon shacking up for a couple of months in a Wisconsin cabin, writing and multitrack recording), Bon Iver furnishes a fuller sound, but not without the emotional resonance For Emma exuded. Surprisingly, Bon Iver gave the band a slightly more melancholy sound, but still flecked with a few moments of happiness – a formula that has given Vernon a great deal of success.

Favorite songs on the album: “Holocene” and “Wash.”

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Music Monday: Symphony of Science

I’ve already stated how awesome Auto-Tune the News is (for the record, I am insanely jealous of the people that saw the Gregory Brothers perform at the StarKid shows this weekend, albeit glad that I didn’t have to be surrounded by teenaged, rabid Glee fans for four hours), but to be honest, their videos have been fairly lacking as they extend themselves into touring and their actual job of being intentional singers. But a nice alternative to the Gregory Brothers has sprung about in its place: Symphony of Science.

Released by the YouTuber John Boswell, under the username melodysheep, Symphony of Science is less funny and more inspiring; slightly less entertaining and slightly more educating; and it is chock full of physicists and other scientists in the public sphere. It began with “A Glorious Dawn,” featuring the late Carl Sagan (who’s kind of become the mascot of the project, like Einstein to mental_floss or George Washington to George magazine) and Stephen Hawking, an unintentional song so intentionally beautiful it caught the ear of Jack White, who released it on his record label, Third Man Records:

The project – which takes from Sagan’s Cosmos, TED Talks, NOVA, and other science series – grew in terms of the number of scientists featured to a sort of ensemble cast, like here with my personal favorite, “The Poetry of Reality,” one of the pieces Boswell’s put together that not only has resonant subject matter (it makes me want to go out and join the ranks of the 12 scientists featured, however impossible that may be) but a really great melody (albeit one that sounds a bit like this Hank Green song):

And finally, the latest Symphony of Science track, “Onward to the Edge,” which for whatever reason almost made me cry.

Music Monday: Songs from “Arthur”

As someone who grew up in 1990s North America, Arthur holds an important place in my general complex of nostalgia. I’m actually kind of shocked that it’s still on today, almost 15 years since it premiered in 1997, with Arthur Read, Buster Baxter, Francine Frensky, The Brain, et al. still in Mr. Ratburn’s class. Looking back, though, a pretty good amount of the shows don’t hold up for 19-year-old me as much as they did with, say, 7- or 8-year-old me.

One of them that does by far, though, is the musical episode, “Arthur’s Almost Live, Not Real Music Festival.” Part of the third season of 1999-2000, the episode had two songs that still resonate for me and those in my age group today: “Library Card” (which I invariably reference when talking about libraries) and “Jekyll and Hyde.”

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Required Listening: “Has Been”

In 1968, William Shatner – well on his rise to success in his second season starring as James T. Kirk on Star Trek – released a musical album, The Transformed Man. Combining what were then brand-new songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with Shakespeare and Cyrano De Bergerac, The Transformed Man was widely panned, in part because of Shatner’s unique style of spoken-word singing, and in part of the sheer ridiculousness and bombast of the performance.

Nearly four decades later, Shatner came out with a new album, called Has Been. What with his previous musical career being parodied time and time again, Has Been was looked down upon before it was released in 2004. However, the nay-sayers spoke far too soon, because Has Been is an album of sheer brilliance. Take the second track of the album, “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” for example:

This track alone shows a whole lot of the difference between Has Been and Shatner’s previous musical oeuvre. First, gone is the over-the-top absurdity; in its place is genuine, raw emotion in the form of spoken word (well, with the exception of the title track, which is a campy, tongue in cheek Western song). Only one cover is on the album: Pulp’s “Common People” (we’ll get to that in a moment); most of the other songs are written by Shatner along with Ben Folds, along with other collaborators, like Nick Hornby, Brad Paisley (whose music video for the song “Online” featured Shatner), and Lemon Jelly, who did the music for this next song, “Together”:

But the song which brought the album the exposure that led to its acclaim was “Common People,” which really was what a cover should be – a performance that maintains the idea of the original while building upon it.

People snicker at me when I include a William Shatner album in my Top 10 favorites. But honestly, Has Been is kind of genius. With strong musical performance and an even stronger series of lyrics, Shatner, Folds et al. created in 2004 an album that will probably go overlooked but is really a diamond in the rough.

Music Monday: Indie Soundtracks

(Ed. Note: Tonight’s going to be a busy night work-wise, so I’m pushing back the retrospective to tomorrow.)

There’s been an interesting trend over the past few years – instead of having folks like John Williams or Hans Zimmer score major films, popular – or not so popular – recording artists are taking over. Take last year’s Academy Award-winning score for The Social Network, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross:

Nine Inch Nails is a fairly popular band, so let’s go even deeper, to Karen O’s soundtrack for the fantastic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (which I hold was a great film, but a terrible kids’ film):

Recently, Andrew Bird scored the soundtrack for the indie film Norman – which included “Night Sky,” a reworking of his song “The Sifters”:

The best of that soundtrack, though, may not be Bird’s – it’s probably Chad VanGaalen’s song “Rabid Bits of Time”:

Music Monday: Norteno on the 6 Train (plus things of note)

First off: there was a norteño band performing when I was on the 6 train yesterday. I rarely if ever see musicians performing on the Lexington Avenue Line, at least on the trains (musicians can easily be found on the platforms of most stations (including 68th Street-Hunter College, which is one of the stops I often use), along with the mezzanine for the 42nd Street station). The trains are generally too crowded and thus musicians really don’t have the space to play. I suppose they were there since it was a Sunday and the train was sparsely-occupied.

The song itself, as recorded for the Subway Music Archive (which I’ll make a page for here on the blog at some point, just have to get around to it) is a fragment, as they began playing just before the train pulled into the 51st Street station – since I was taking the 6 to the E to the 7 on the way to a Halloween party (video of which is over here on Tumblr), I had to transfer at 51st – but I recorded until the train doors closed.

Also, two other Mets-related things I wanted to tackle without writing a separate post: Ted Berg is moving to the Upper East Side (welcome to New York County, Ted!) today and has been posting some of TedQuarters‘s “greatest hits”, including this one on the closing and tearing-down of Shea Stadium. It’s cool because I’d never read it before – it was on his “Flushing Fussing” column before he began his blog – and that it mentions my dad and I. Not by name – otherwise I’d probably know about it – but as “a young man and an old man [playing] catch with mitts and a tennis ball,” which my dad and I did for basically the entirety of fall and winter of 2008-2009 after work at the Armstrong House as sort of a cathartic exercise as Shea was being taken down.

Second, the Mets announced they’re moving in the walls of Citi Field today. It oddly looks like the renderings Randy Medina of The Apple drew up. I’m just going to leave it at that.

Symbology and Myth in Marina City

The cover artwork of Wilco's 2002 album Yankee...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m breaking the usual format this week to provide a special Music Monday post (which in this case is more my thoughts tangentially related to the music and not the music itself) that’s been brewing in my head the last couple of days. The Week in Preview will come tomorrow, with regular posts to follow.

I was looking through the Wilco tag on Tumblr on a lazy Saturday evening when I found this.

An absolutely stunning picture of Marina City, or as Bestest Friend Ever Kelly Cordray put it, “the Wilco towers,” referring to the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one of the greatest albums of the 2000s and easily my favorite album to this point in my life. I ended up coming back to this picture, again and again, for the next few hours, studying the contour of the buildings and simply being mesmerized by the picture itself. When I was talking about this with Kelly, she thought they were just buildings. And really, they are – as much as they seem abstract, almost mystical, people live there, and work there, and (in the lower portion of the buildings) park their cars there. Life goes on there just as life goes on in the former psychiatric ward in which I live. But to me, the towers of Marina City represent so much more.

How can a picture of a place I’ve never been encompass so much feeling? It’s kind of easy for Chicago to be that place, a city ever so eloquently described by Carl Sandburg (emphasis mine):

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

It’s a city with myriad neighborhoods, enough lore to rival New York, and like all cities, constantly at war with itself. It’s a town that reveres its hot dogs and its steak sandwiches. It has a flag that commands respect and wonder, and with it (and quite possibly from it), creates a sense of civic pride rivaled by few metropolises in the world. As was noted on Roman Mars’s fantastic design podcast 99% Invisible, when a Chicago police officer dies, it’s the city’s, not the national flag on their casket. And yet the most important component of the myth of Chicago is that it’s a place personally unexplored and relatively as far as the moon itself, and thus infinite in its potential.

But it’s more to it than that – more than just another great city, another potential place to escape and move forth – Marina City is as equally connected to the myth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, my myth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as it is with the myth of Chicago. Obviously, on its surface, its connection is as all albums are connected to their cover, the nostalgia that comes into picking up the packaging, thumbing through the liner notes, combing over the lyrics to make sure you’ve got that line right in your head. (For the record, I love that in the YHF liner notes, it says that “Wilco is/was” the band – even in verb tense agreement, the album has such eternality.) When I first heard the album, about two and a half years ago, was a turning point in my adolescence, a point when I began to emotionally and academically mature, when I really came to develop the ability to be passionate about things – not in the way of the fleeting but intense passions of childhood, but of genuine, lifelong affinities – and when I came to connect with and understand people, and make truly meaningful friendships.

But at the core, for me, the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, both melodically and lyrically, has become a story in and of itself – one of love and its loss (and the garish beauty of love’s futility), and of truths hidden in the chaos of everyday life. And with those themes, Marina City remains at the center of the album – not just in the tall buildings shaking in “Jesus, Etc.”, but through all the songs. The aural landscape of the album can really just be walking about the towers and along the shores of the Chicago River, ruminating the thoughts humans like us think.

I wonder if YHF would resonate for me as much if the cover were different (as discussed in this video done by the AV Club), or if I found it at a different point in my life. As Jeff Tweedy himself alluded to at the first of Wilco’s Central Park concerts this fall, for those who heard it when it was first put out by the band in 2001 (particularly New Yorkers), the album could have been a way to reflect upon September 11th, 2001, or if the timeline were misconstrued, seen as a response to that day’s proceedings. But I discovered Wilco, and YHF, years later. In the end, it’s become for me what all great music of youth becomes: a symbol of personal change, an agent of discussion on what it means to be adult, and over time, a source of what was and what might still be.

Music Monday: Tiny Desks and Take-Aways

Ed. Note: In the time between writing up the Week in Preview post and the writing of this post, I decided to expand the scope of this post to include some of my other favorite performances on the internet in a different web series.

It’s always great when you get to hear a fantastic musical act perform live. It’s even better when they’re performing just a few feet away from you, in your office or on the street. That’s kind of why NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series and French videographer Vincent Moon’s Take-Away Show are just so damn brilliant – they take top-shelf musicians, place them in by and large odd places, and have them just perform as they normally would – creating a spectacle that goes beyond the music itself.

The Tiny Desk Concerts began in March of 2010 as they do now (latest Tiny Desk Concert featured Wilco), literally at the desk of Bob Boilen, co-host of NPR Music’s flagship show, All Songs Considered, at the NPR headquarters in Washington. It’s basically a private concert for the workers in the NPR office (though, as you’ll hear in the concert below, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists “was always under the impression that these things were done while everybody was trying to work”), broadcast to the world.

One Tiny Desk Concert performer was actually quite the match for the setting: John Darnielle, heart and soul of the Mountain Goats, alone with his guitar.

The Take-Away Show, on the other hand, generally throws both Moon and the performer(s) into a different setting, just like this performance by REM, one of five songs Moon released on La Blogotheque, performed in Michael Stipe’s car in Athens, GA:

And finally, my personal favorite of those I’ve seen, Andrew Bird walking along Montmartre in Paris performing “Weather Systems,” which is just a remarkable show of Bird’s sheer talent.

Required Listenings Top 5: Favorite Podcasts

First generation iPod Shuffle with the cap rem...

I used to have this iPod model. (Small in storage, but pretty damn sturdy - unsurprising, considering it was a USB flash drive with a headphone jack.) (Image via Wikipedia.)

I never really got into podcast listening (and certainly not podcasting) until about February, when I got my iPod touch (and therefore a music listening device that held more than a gigabyte – sorry, 1st Generation iPod shuffle). But since I started, I’ve been listening in a huge way. I regularly listen weekly to (by my unofficial count) 19 different podcasts. (My goodness, that’s a lot.) Obviously, I enjoy listening to them, otherwise I wouldn’t – but of course, I have a few particular favorites. (For the record, I’m going to have to disallow inclusion of PodQuiz, ’cause while it’s awesome, since I was once on the show, I don’t feel like it’s right to include it.) In any case, here they are:

5. Startalk Radio (Curved Light Productions)

Quite a few podcasts I listen to are educational, specifically about science, for which I have a great affinity. (One of the podcasts that didn’t make the cut, WBEZ’s Clever Apes, is a fun science show too.) But Startalk is very different: as they say in their intro, it’s where “space, science, and society are converging.” They fulfill that by having astrophysics rock star Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, and a rotation of stand-up comedians as co-hosts (Leighann Lord, Chuck Nice and Eugene Mirman have all appeared). Speaking to experts in both the lab and the studio, there is both substantive discussion and a little funny commentary – from the co-host and Tyson both. Along with scientists, Tyson has spoken to people who have been inspired by science, like Moby and Jonathan Coulton, and those who have inspired scientific endeavors, like Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, a two-part interview from which I was greatly moved.

4. The Nerdist (Nerdist Industries)

The flagship and namesake of Chris Hardwick’s burgeoning podcasting empire, The Nerdist is similar to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in that instead of trying to be funny all the time, it’s quite poignant – it’s an interview show first. At least, when they have a guest. When they do, it’s great – even when I may not enjoy that guest’s work (like when they interviewed 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss or, more recently, Tom Green), Hardwick and co-hosts Jonah Ray and Matt Mira bring out the best in them. But what I truly love are their regularly recurring “Hostful” shows, where it’s just Hardwick, Ray and Mira riffing for an hour. It’s not even an interview at that point – it’s a conversation between friends, and it’s great to listen in on that. Continue reading

Music Monday: Monsters of Folk

I first listened to the supergroup Monsters of Folk, really before I knew they were a supergroup – I thought they were just a group that happened to have a free song out on iTunes. The song, specifically, was “Baby Boomer.”

Little did I know that the band’s constituents are actually pretty huge – there’s Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James, the frontman of My Morning Jacket, and the beloved M. Ward (and, since January, Will Johnson of the band Centro-Matic). And not only do they have both talent and star power outside of MOF, they jam pretty darn well on their (so far) only album, a self-titled release in 2009. Here’s another one of the songs on the album, “His Master’s Voice”:

The cool thing about Monsters of Folk is that the band members trade off on instrumental and vocal duties, so you get three different vocalists (Oberst, James, and Ward), both James and Ward on piano, and all four members on both acoustic and electric guitar. This is well-seen on the band’s first track, “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”: