I'm a male with indie-leaning musical tastes in his early 40s, so it's not a surprise that I was excited by the news that My Bloody Valentine was FINALLY releasing their followup to Loveless. Where I differ from my peers is that, aside from "Soon", I wasn't anywhere near the band's bandwagon during their heyday. About the time that they were turning themselves into a legendary bastion of 90s alternative music, I was transitioning from industrial music to rave music and the descendants of early house and techno; all of my focus was on 808s and 909s and the few guitar bands I regularly followed were holdovers from high school. I really liked "Soon". I appreciated my friends' appreciation for My Bloody Valentine. I always chimed in with positive comments when the band came up in conversation but I never actually listened to them.
This changed over the summer of 1998. I was spending the summer working in DC, commuting back to Boston over the weekends; this meant that every week I was traveling to and from work in a company-sponsored rental car, often with a CD player. I took this travel opportunity to both explore new albums, which is one reason why I own about a bazillion terrible drum n bass compilations, and catch up on bands I felt I should know better. My first exposure to "Only Shallow" was driving back from Tower Records in Tysons Corner, windows rolled down blasting at top volume. I spent some time kicking myself for resting on name recognition and spent most of the rest of the summer luxuriating in feedback.
I write all of this to say that I come to MBV as more of a dilettante than a True Believer. I was excited by the prospect of a new album but I hadn't spent 22 years sitting on the edge of my seat, gobbling up hints of progress here or there or going bonkers over a Kevin Shields appearance on a Primal Scream album. (Granted, he helped them do their best work since "Slip Inside This House" but the degree to which Primal Scream is overrated is another post.) This was an album by a band I liked that had been on an indefinite hiatus and I was interested in checking it out.
So, with all of that prelude out of the way, let me say this; m b v melts my face. I love the feedback and I love that its main function is to muddy up pretty pop songs. I love that the album opens with a comforting droney piece that makes it seem like the past 22 years never happened, followed by "Only Tomorrow", a song that keeps one foot firmly in the shoegazing dream pop that made the band into cult icons while turning up the complexity in the songwriting. I have listened to the coda approximately a bazillion times and I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. The album builds from here; "Who Sees You" continues the fuzzy exploration of stately chord progression, followed by the static beauty of "Is This And Yes", followed by more mid-tempo melodic twistiness in "If I Am". The album spends most of its running time effortlessly showing off why so many people on the younger side of middle-aged became so obsessed with them, alternating between knowing pander and gentle prodding into an expanded vision of what people think My Bloody Valentine is all about... up until the final three tracks. That's when things get real.
"In Another Way" bumps the BPMs up a notch, bringing to mind a more aggressively melodic iteration of "Soon". This is just a palette cleanser for the pummeling fury of "Nothing Is", an exercise in how stasis can represent fury. This leads into album closer "Wonder 2" which I'm not going to even bother describing beyond saying it's delirious, disorienting and makes me hope that I'm not 62 before the next MBV album arrives.
Leave it to Beyonce to ruin everyone's end-of-year album lists by releasing the best album of her career on a Thursday with little-to-no fanfare.
I resisted the album for several days, partially to avoid technical glitches and partially because I thought 4 was the definitive artistic statement I wanted from her. As I listened to the album, I felt entertained but not particularly invested. I wasn't sure why everyone was going completely bananas over it.
Then, I watched the videos.
I had approached the idea of this release as a "visual album" with a ready arsenal of eye rolls and snorts. After all, if the music is strong enough, the visuals shouldn't matter, right? Apparently I'm a judgmental idiot because most of the videos uncover layers of impact behind most of these songs, making them the most narratively-cohesive collection of songs Beyonce has ever released. Furthermore, the impact of "Pretty Hurts" is much easier to handwave when not watching post-purge Beyonce wiping her mouth or the full extent the question "what is your aspiration?" flusters her in the fictional pageant (honestly the best acting I've ever seen Beyonce do). The Shining-meets-Justify My Love imagery of "Haunted" amplifies the song's inherent eeriness. The bubblegum-on-Spanish fly eroticism behind the roller skating-heavy "Blow" amps an already sexual song up to 11. "***Flawless" should be linked to every online dictionary's definition of "Swagger" and I don't have the words to express the simple, humanizing joy behind the clips for "XO" and "Blue".
I've only watched the videos once but going back to the album after seeing them has been a revelation and delight. There's no direct link for me to post because, as far as I know, this album is still an iTunes exclusive. I strongly recommend checking it out. Once I get out of the RMV, I'll post a link to the "XO" video, which I still can't believe was filmed by Terry Richardson.
Beyonce - Beyonce is not available in total on the web from a streaming source as far as I know but you can watch 30 second previews of the video clips here.
The first time I saw Fantasia Barrino sing on American Idol, I didn't get it.
She was performing in the semifinal round, singing to judges who had already fallen in love with her and were selling her to the audience as the season's clear frontrunner. Being the snobby dork that I am, what I heard was a gravelly voice that seemed to be more into melisma and ornamentation than singing a song. It was flashy, yes; it was also out of rhythm, the pitch was wobbly and even though I now can't remember the song she was singing, the melismania she was displaying was wholly wrong for it. When she passed through to the finals, I figured America would finally catch on to the lack of substance and bounce her from the competition.
Obviously, that didn't happen. In fact, as the season went on, Fantasia (along with her fellow divas Latoya London and, who was the other one, the one who came in seventh? Oh right, JENNIFER HUDSON) delivered great performance after great performance, turning me into a fervent supporter and (mostly) cruising to take the third season crown. I couldn't wait for her to dominate the music world and, when her single "Truth Is" came out, I figured her omnipresence was just beginning.
Obviously, that didn't happen either. Fantasia has had a great career, including a ton of success on the R&B charts and a stint in The Color Purple where she made the fickle Tony Awards crowd stand up and lose their minds, but she never became a Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or even a Jordin Sparks. I would wonder why before ruefully admitting that I really wanted her to succeed but had never actually bothered to buy or even listen to any of her albums. When I noticed Side Effects of You had been released this past year, I decided to remedy that. AM I EVER GLAD I DID.
Fantasia of 2013 is a much different, more accomplished singer than Fantasia of 2004. The choices she makes, whether it's in where an ad-lib or exhortation should be in a chorus or bridge, or transitioning from her raspy belt into a surprisingly clear, effective head voice, stomping over an old-school R&B beat or icily giving an ex the kiss-off, always connect. It helps that the material can stand up to her voice; most of the songs are collaborations with producer Harmony Samuels, a name I don't know but plan to look into in the future. The best example of their synergy is the single "Without Me", which also pulls in fantastic assists from Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott to create a majestic groove over which the women take turns giving a fool his walking papers. It's one of those songs that made me instantly hit repeat the first time I heard it and, if I was ranking 2013 singles, it would have a strong chance at being my favorite. Other standouts include "Get It Right", "Ain't All Bad", "End of Me", "Change Your Mind" and "Supernatural Love".
My good friend Ned told me multiple times that I was going to lose my mind over Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant but, for whatever reason, I remained skeptical. I didn't feel that I was really in the headspace to pay attention to or enjoy a singer/songwriter type when the album started making the rounds and really wasn't motivated to check out the album despite multiple exhortations. I finally got around to listening to it sometime after it appeared on Spotify, which I believe was several months after it had been released.
There are multiple ways in which this is an astonishing piece of work. First off, it's produced by Biggi Viera of GusGus, who worked with Grant to create a soundscape that transitions seamlessly from Grant's indie rock background into Viera's electronic roots. Lyrically, Grant is pulling from some really dark places; the songs for the album were written and recorded in the wake of a bad breakup and learning that a passing sexual encounter had infected him with HIV and the words paint pictures of anger, hopelessness, disgust, self-loathing and misery, making the album a pretty heavy listen. Grant sings these words in a pure, smooth baritone that is one of the best voices I encountered in 2013.
Several songs on the album feature Sinead O'Connor on backing vocals; the most striking of these is "Why Don't You Love Me Anymore?" where Grant's flat-affect delivery is offset by O'Connor's fragile, bordering-on-unhinged harmonizing. Another standout is "GMF", named for an acronym of a key phrase in the chorus that will probably make you cheer once you listen to the song. Album opener "Pale Green Ghosts" shows the strongest connection to Viera's GusGus lineage, with its burbling bass line and synth stabs, while "I Hate This Town" puts me in mind of an alternate universe Billy Joel more enamored of stream-of-consciousness lyrics and hard-earned vitriol.
One thing I respond very positively towards in music is fury. It's an emotion I invariably find thrilling and intoxicating; the energy expressed, whether it's a fury born of rage and anger or of exultation and delight, rushes straight through my entire body akin to a full-on adrenaline rush that makes me want to leap out of my chair and dance until I collapse from exhaustion. It's the thing that initially attracted me to dance music and tends to inform the rock music I listen to.
Another component I really dig is craftmanship. A band that works together like a well-oiled machine will almost always score bonus points with me, partially because of the respect I have for the time and effort required to create that type of seamless-seeming performance synergy.
When I first encountered Savages, it was via an appearance on "Later with Jools Holland" where they performed the song "Husbands". I won't lie; the band had about a 70% chance of winning me over before they ever played a note. Four women, mostly in black, standing on stage as feedback came up around them... this wasn't going to be a snuggly, comforting performance. Then, the drums started up, followed by that rolling bass, and I was completely, totally entranced. I felt like I had been transported back to 1980 and was watching a band that one day would be mentioned alongside The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees as a mainstream-yet-subculture juggernaut that would rip your face off in the most professional way possible. This was exactly my type of fury; harsh, discordant, yelpy, elegant, musical, precise, wonderful. The album expands upon all of those, ranging from all-out squall ("Hit Me", "No Face") to gentler, more reflective songs that still contain steel ("Waiting For A Sign", "Marshal Dear"). I've read a lot of people poo-poohing the album as Yet Another Post-Punk retread with lots of comparisons to Joy Division and Interpol, which frankly is bananas; there's more punk in here than that, and more precision as well (and, quite frankly, if an Interpol album exists that has even half the energy of this one, someone point me towards it immediately because everything I've heard by them has been soooooooooo enervating and boring). If I was going to point to a forebear, it would be Bauhaus. However, I'd much rather press play and pogo to the break at the beginning of the chorus to "She Will".
I want to talk a little bit about some of my favorite albums from 2013. The ordering and number will be arbitrary and I'll post Spotify links where available. I highlight these albums because I really, really enjoyed them; I wouldn't call any of them "obscure" but some have definitely received more mainstream attention and achieved more mainstream success than others. The only thing I think they have in common is that I find them all massively entertaining and I hope someone out there happens across this blog and enjoys them.
This entry was completely up in the air right up until I picked "All Cats Are Gray". I love so many song so deeply that marking out one as my favorite bordered on painful. It may sound melodramatic and nonsensical, but music makes me feel alive; listening to it, performing it, in all of its guises, makes me who I am, and narrowing down that portion of myself to one song seems worse than limiting. It's almost like lying, really; I feel like I'm trying to boil my personality down to one specific thing that only represents a small facet of who I am.
I picked a Cure song because I knew one would be easy to find online. I picked this particular Cure song because it is one of the few that it always on my shortlist of favorite pieces of music; the simple percussion line mixed in with those haunting synths and the plaintive vocal line, followed by that aching coda... not only is it well-constructed and performed, but it's also an emotional sledgehammer rife with imagery. The album it comes from, Faith, is 30 years old this year, but in many ways it still feels like it was just released yesterday.
There are many other songs I could have posted here; take, for example, this:
I first performed "Take him, Earth, for cherishing" as a college sophomore with the Harvard University Choir. This was my second year singing in a church choir and it really formed the backbone of my college experience, especially as a musician. In fact, the main reason I am a church musician now is tied into the fantastic experiences I had with that group at Memorial Church. The song itself is one of many outstanding pieces of choral literature that we did during my college career; the shifts in tempo and how it hops through different tonalities make it a living beast, even setting aside the occasion for which it was written, as a memorial to the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. Adding that layer into an already heady mixture makes it one of the most personally meaningful pieces I've ever performed. I'll never tire of it, and I am always thankful I was introduced to it during my college experience.
Conversely, I could have gone this route:
I've cycled through several favorite electronic acts, ranging from synth pop through industrial acts and lots of styles in between, but the album that has stuck with me the most is Orbital's In-Sides, largely because of this song, "Adnan's". Most of the album looks to meld the dancefloor with the epic but this is the track where all of the pieces really fall into line. The synth melody that appears around 4:05 encapsulates much of what I look for in music; simplicity augmented by repetition into something much more majestic than the sum of its parts. In fact, I stopped writing and just basked in the music coming from my headphones once the track hit that midpoint.
I can't find a link to the Sign 'O' The Times version of "Housequake", which literally is one of the greatest things ever recorded. It's pure, visceral, booty-shaking funk as only Prince can do it; this kitchen-sink live recording is also amazing but you really need to hear the stripped-down album version to really get the genius melding of iciness and heat that elevates this song into genius. So basically, go get a copy of Sign 'O' The Times. Almost every song on it is as amazing as this one and this one melts your face.
So, there you have it; several different perspectives on "what is my favorite song?" Even now, I want to keep going and list even more songs, but I really need to save at least a few for later entries.