Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

 

In 2012, Alabama Shakes released their first LP titled Boys & Girls to rave reviews. This album is better. It’s significantly different, but significantly better. Their first album sounds like 70’s rock – guitar driven with even a slight country twang in places. The group hails from Athens, Alabama, and their first album reflects it in sound. It sounds like you’re sitting in a soulful southern joint eating some rice and beans or something.

But their second LP, Sound & Color hardly sounds like the same band. They’ve matured musically, moving into a much more complex array of sounds. Xylophones? Distorted vocals? Groovy bass lines? It’s so different and layered and complex compared to their debut work. It’s a welcomed move.

This album is more Al Green than it is Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is certainly a step up in the opinion of this blogger. That said, even with the drastically new sound, the same impressive pipes propel the album: those of Brittany Howard, whose high-pitched vocals make the muscles in my neck twinge just thinking about them. Her first squeal on the album’s single, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” is so painfully pitched one wonders how she even manages it. Her voice is unique and most likely unlike anything else you’ve heard before.

And I love it.

“Don’t Wanna Fight” (along with the other single, “Gimme All Your Love“) is the type of record you put on in the car when the road trip gets boring. It’s the perfect tune to just belt out at the top of your lungs. If your vocal chords aren’t throbbing through the first 5 tracks on this album, you’re doing it wrong. No restraint here. I’d suggest that the 3-year gap between their first and second albums was to allow for her chords to recover, but the group toured relentlessly over that stretch, so so much for that theory.

What probably took so long was simply how complex this album is. Alongside Howard, Alabama Shakes features Heath Fogg on guitar, Zac Cockerell on bass and Steve Johnson on drums, and unlike Boys & Girls, all four members are featured prominently on this album. On their first album, when Howard quit singing, the album lost it’s thrust. On this album, that’s not the case. The bass and guitar in particular drive this album just as much as the vocals in places.

The most interesting thing on this album – and the thing that ties the whole thing together – is the distortions on both the instrumentation and Howard’s vocals. Rather than just have her sing over the grooves, they chose to enmesh her vocals in with the overall sound of each track. The effect is fascinating. I keep coming back to Al Green – the moment he starts singing, you know it’s him. His voice is unmistakeable. Howard’s voice might be the closest thing I’ve heard to Green’s.

The latter half of the record (with the glaring exception of “The Greatest” – which is borderline punk rock) is ballad after ballad. It’s the closest to Al Green’s overall sound that the album comes. They’re not bad – in fact I like each song individually – but they do get a bit monotonous. While the first 5 tracks are asking to be screamed, the next 7 struggle to keep my ear. I really dig “Guess Who” and “Miss You” – which both beautifully oscillate between delicate and powerful, but it’s an album I struggle to get through from start to finish. The sound becomes expected the longer you listen to it, which really makes me wonder where they’ll go with their sound in the future.

It would be an absolute shock if Shakes beat out Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar, but it’s the only other one I see having any chance. It’s a distant third in this year’s field. I do think it will win Alternative Album of the Year. It’s primary competition there is Tame Impala, but I’ve always wondered how any of the other nominees think they have a chance against an album nominated for Album of the Year. If it’s not the best Alternative Album, how would it ever be the top overall?

Top tracks: Don’t Wanna Fight, Guess Who, Gimme All Your Love

Back to GRAMMYs.

 

1989 – Taylor Swift

It feels funny to write about an album that’s so universally known at this point. I should’ve written this back in early 2015 when the album initially dropped, because at this point we all know what kind of an album we have here.

Taylor Swift moved from Nashville to New York City two years ago and it’s reflected in pretty much everything here. The emotional acoustic guitar has been replaced with crisp cadences and catchy choruses. But Taylor’s need to overshare the depth of her soul is still present though, but instead of crying over lovers, it’s an album about freedom in the business of the big city. Even the more stripped down tracks (“This Love,” “How You Get the Girl,” “Clean“) are produced at a different level than her past ballads. She’d dabbled with pop in the past, but never truly abandoned her country connection. Here she goes full pop.

But it’s not remotely surprising. Nothing about this abandonment in 1989 is startling. It feels natural. Which is not something most artists ought to be able to do so seamlessly. When an artist changes his/her sound, there’s typically a backlash of some sort that laments them straying from their origins and chasing new sounds. Consumers don’t do well with change.

What is startling is how T-Swift refuses to be put in a box. She’s moved from winning country awards to winning pop soloist awards and somehow has managed to transcend both categories. She doesn’t fit in anyone’s mold. She’s a shapeshifter who never surprises you with her new look. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, she morphs again, yet it all feels so natural. It’s just who she is.

She’s unapologetically herself, and that’s her greatest strength.

From the outset, it’s an incredibly fun album. “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have been two of the loudest anthems across the nation this past year. It’s hard to leave the house without hearing her voice at some point. And, my goodness, if I’m not tapping my foot every time. Something about her tunes gets under my skin whether you want it to or not. And let’s be honest: You want it to.

This album is hit after hit, track after track, and none of them are complex. “Style” is a straightforward boy-meets-girl anthem. “Bad Blood” is a straightforward you-hurt-me-but-screw-you anthem. There’s no metaphor here and there’s no confusion as to what she’s singing about. She writes her heart, mind and soul into her lyrics, yet it doesn’t feel like an overshare because she’s probably the most lovable human since Tom Hanks. She doesn’t fit in, and that’s the way she wants it.

It’s hard to even classify her alongside other artists. Who else with her level of fame manages to sit so completely alone and look so comfortable with it? Maybe Adele? Maybe Lady Gaga? There’s no competition here, not because she’s defeated everyone else, but because she is so unlike the competition.

You know these songs. I don’t need to tell you any more. But I’ll say this: I think she loses out to Kendrick Lamar. I won’t be surprised if T-Swift takes home a bundle, but I don’t think she ends up with the Big One.

Top Tracks: Shake It Off, Clean, Blank Space, Bad Blood

-apc.

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Before I say anything else about this album, I need to say this: I have the highest respect for Kendrick Lamar. As an artist, as a role model, and as a human being, I’m extremely impressed with who he is and what he hopes to stand for as someone with fame and influence.

And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly comes from: Kendrick Lamar’s deep desire to utilize his influence for good. It’s an album about leadership and celebrity. It’s Kendrick wrestling with the temptations associated with his new platform – the “evils of Lucy” (aka Lucifer) as he calls them. It’s his sophomore album – which typically has insane pressure to build off a successful debut project – isn’t anything what you’d expect from a rising star in the world. Instead of diving deep into his newfound wealth and power, he has chosen to take a step back and comment on how his status can be problematic, and how he strives to “pimp” that status for the benefit of others. Speaking value into his home community.

Kendrick Lamar is from Compton. He was raised in a world with a certain perspective and a certain way of life. No one ever told him he could amount to anything – that there was a world out there he could explore and learn from. He was born into a system of madness – which is the focus of his first album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” – and one of his primary goals in his new album is to preach potential to his community back home.

The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” speaks to poverty and imprisonment. Opening up the collective mind of the systematic oppression experienced by those who grow up in the narrative of Compton and similar communities. There are places to visit, there’s a world out there to learn from – there are other ways of life. You’re not stuck in the narrative of cyclical generational poverty you’re been raised into.

It’s a fascinating album from a structural standpoint. The album continues in that vein through “King Kunta” and “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” But the album seems to be framed in two parts around two songs: “u” – which focuses on the depression and suicidal feelings stemming from Kendrick experiencing a lack of control in painful things in his life – and “Alright” – which is the inverse narrative declaring that regardless of how bad things get, “we gonna be alright.”

Laced throughout the album is a poem. The first time you hear it, it’s only the first couple lines, but each recitation reveals more and more of the complete poem.

I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home…

The first time through the album, it’s confusing and disruptive. It’s tempting to skip the spoken portions to get back to the music, but the listener does him/herself a disservice if he does it. If Kendrick Lamar was about writing singles and pop hits, he’d never want the monologue there. It segments the flow and forces you to consider the words through repetition. The words provide the thrust of the album’s content.

But then you get to the end of the album – to “Mortal Man” – and you realize this isn’t a poem at all, but it’s a letter to Tupac. Apparently, while Kendrick was in Germany, some dude gave him a recording of an interview with Tupac from years ago when he was still alive. Kendrick takes that audio and creates an interview dialogue out of it between he and Tupac. It’s unbelievable. If you didn’t know/believe Tupac was dead, you’d be convinced he somehow sat down with Kendrick. It’s seamless and still so relevant to the world today.

In fact, get this: the orginal title for the album was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpiller – Tu.P.A.C. – but went with butterfly instead because it represented Kendrick’s desire to pimp the beautiful things in life. There is so much happening here structurally it’s hard to nail it down unless you take the time to zoom out and consider the full context. The whole structure of the album is brilliant. Once the first listen is over, suddenly the end opens up the entire album in a new light – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to be honest. Lamar doesn’t shy away from the painful realities in the world, so there are moments on the album which, when taken out of context, can communicate something totally different than Kendrick’s big idea of the album. But when you listen to its entirety and begin to break down the themes and what he’s doing structurally, the album manages to open up to something incredible.

Admittedly, this isn’t an album that you can sit down and bump around to. It’s also not an album with singles you can throw into a playlist and listen to individually. Again, his goal isn’t to create a bunch of pop hits (which is basically exactly Taylor Swift’s goal in creating 1989) – it’s a cohesive creative unit with a message throughout.

The only single that was released for the album was “i” where features a looped Isley Brothers sample that really grooves. The phrase “I love myself” is repeated in chorus. It’s an anthem for those who society puts down – specifically young black community. Instead of believing the narrative of their world, to discover that everyone has value and ought to love themselves.

Except then on the album, it sounds like a live version! What?! Why would you do this to us Kendrick?! You can hear a crowd clamoring and someone introducing Kendrick as a guy who has “traveled all round the world but came back” – so apparently he’s performing for the people of Compton.

And then toward the end of the song he stops singing and starts talking to the people instead. He’s addressing the community about what it means to be black in the world – trying to create a new narrative for his home. He asks how many people have died in 2015 alone before doing a sort of etymological study on the N-word. He presents the Ethiopian word “negus” meaning “royalty” – a reclamation on a word taken and perverted by Americans over the decades.

By releasing the single version and then changing the album version, Kendrick further pushes his agenda. In fact, he actually sets up the speech in the “live” version by giving the single version beforehand. People come to the album expecting to bump to “i,” but end up startled by Kendrick’s message to home.

The album is honest and vulnerable. Kendrick’s message of positive influence is clear. He wants to denounce the evils associated with fame and celebrity and focus on communicating positivity to the system he came from.

It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar views himself as the butterfly that was able to come out of the system he was born into – not in a boastful or arrogant sense, as is the norm in hip hop. Rather than chasing more money and status and pointing the finger at his success, he points the finger at his struggles and pain. The album is about transformation. He hopes to change the narrative of those who grew up in the culture he did. The caterpillar he talks about in the final minute of the album are all those who are born into that system, and Kendrick hopes his voice can be one that begins a process of transformation.

If you want to know more, I recommend watching this 4-part interview Lamar did with MTV. Here’s the first of the four interviews…

Again, I respect the guy immensely. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible album. One with a purpose of making this world a better place. Most people probably don’t get that, and they won’t look past the controversial album cover. I believe strongly that this album deserves to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs. I’m rooting for it. It’s obviously highly regarded (Kendrick led all artists with 11 nominations), but can it beat out T-Swift’s 1989 – one of the most successful pop albums in recent history? We’ll see. No offense, Taylor.

Top tracks: u, King Kunta, Alright, i, Mortal Man, Wesley’s Theory

-apc.

Back to the GRAMMYs page.

Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd

As far as seasons go, winter is the worst. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s dry and uncomfortable. It’s depressing. The best day winter has to offer is Christmas, and since winter begins on December 22, that means the season peaks on Day 3. From there, things trend downward with three major upticks in excitement: New Years Eve, Superbowl Sunday and…

…the Grammys.

And so for the second year in a row, in anticipation of one of the seasons most (only) fun days, I’ll be reviewing the albums up for Album of the Year. Here are this year’s nominees:

  • Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd
  • 1989 – Taylor Swift
  • To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
  • Traveller – Chris Stapleton
  • Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

The obvious heavy hitters are Taylor and Kendrick. There won’t be a dark horse like Beck this year. It’s a two horse race in 2016.

Noticeably absent: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which I think is better than all 5 of the albums listed here. It was nominated for Best R&B Album, and the track “Really Love” is up for Best R&B Song and Record of the Year. I thought for sure it would get a Best Album nom, but alas, it did not. Which sucks. Still, pretty good showing for a guy who’s been on the DL for 14 years.

I also hoped Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, would make the list, but it seems it couldn’t escape the shadow of its own single, “Uptown Funk,” which is up for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The album did get a nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, but it’s only going to win if they change the category to Best Non-Taylor Swift Pop Vocal Album.

Those are my only gripes. Nothing against the 5 albums here, I was just rooting for those guys.

As with last year, I need to throw out this disclaimer: I am not a musician and don’t really have any level of musical understanding beyond being a consumer. So this is purely my take. If you’re interested in reading my past music posts, feel free to hit up my Grammys blog homepage.

***

The Weeknd is just one dude. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and he’s from Toronto. Apparently the name comes from “the weekend” when he decided to drop out of high school and run away from home at age 17. But “The Weekend” was already taken as a band name, so he dropped the third “e” and moved along with it anyway. Beauty Behind the Madness is Tesfaye’s third studio album in four years.

Let’s start with what I do like about this album.

If you’re a Michael Jackson fan – and let’s be honest, odds are you probably are – then you’re going to love sound The Weeknd. Tesfaye sings almost exclusively in that same angsty falsetto range MJ is known for. It’s not as groovy as Off the Wall or Thriller, but it’s not as poppy and clean as Dangerous or Invincible. If it sounds like an MJ album, it’s definitely Bad – songs like “Liberian Girl” and “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal.” (But not “The Way You Make Me Feel” because that song’s an overplayed up-tempo stinker.)

The high-range vocals provide a great contrast to the percussion, strings and bass-heavy instrumentation. It’s dark and damp. At times BBTM goes the route of a jazzy slow jam.

Okay now on to what I’m not a fan of.

The content is mostly about party culture, drugs and sex – but rarely the exciting side of that culture. It’s mostly shadow. Darkness. Sadness. There’s a sense of depression or hurt. It feels lonely in places. Again, angsty. Emotionally charged. I suppose the content isn’t really my jam, but the resulting sound is really compelling throughout. I guess you could say it’s hollow both stylistically and lyrically.

Even the up-tempo songs aren’t upbeat content-wise. “Can’t Feel My Face” is probably the happiest sounding track on the album, but, “I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” sure doesn’t inspire much joy.

There are a few solid features on the album: Ed Sheeran brings his acoustic guitar to “Dark Times.” Lana Del Rey’s creepy little nightmarish voice comes in on “Prisoner.” Track three (which I like to refer to as the “power placement” on an album) is the Kanye West produced “Tell Your Friends,” which sounds straight off of Yeezus. The whole album kinda feels like a scene out of Nightmare Before Christmas…only rated R. Or maybe Sin City or something. It would be almost entirely black and white. It’s got a very Tim Burton/Danny Elfman ominous feel to it.

Here’s something I wish I’d never found out: the The Weeknd was involved in the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack (which Danny Elfman was also involved, coincidentally), which makes the album take on a totally different feel than it did the first time I listened through it. I’ve said this before, but I don’t really listen to lyrics much. My mind gets wrapped up in the groove of music and not necessarily the subject matter, but when I found out the 50 Shades bit, it suddenly connected the dots between style and content and now I can’t escape it.

It’s good. His voice is incredible and the shadowy tone gets under my skin a bit and I find myself actually grooving quite a bit. If it hadn’t been for that last bit of info, I probably would’ve dug it more overall. Which is too bad, because I really liked the sound the first time through.

It won’t win Album of the Year. It’s firmly in the second tier of nominees. But if you’re Jesse Pinkman or Christian Grey (or Chandler Jones), this could be your depressing winter hot jam. If you want a similar sound, but a happier album, go listen to Justin Beiber’s Purpose. Or, I suppose, Bad.

Top Tracks: Losers, ShamelessReal Life, Can’t Feel My Face

-apc.

Back to The Grammys Main Page.

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 4.

Let’s do some shufflin’, shall we? This one is a lightning round: I’m only giving myself until the end of each song to write about it.

For a refresher on the process, you can go back and read other lessons.

Drunk and Hot Girls – Kanye West

Blah. Rough start.

The lowest point on Graduation. Well, the only low point on Graduation, really. Along with “Barry Bonds” (which I admittedly like from time to time), this makes up the sad 9/10 spots on the album. Skip it 90% of the time. Although, it’s hilarious when Kanye makes fun of her singing. It’s good for a laugh, but for the most part this is…blah.

From Above – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

I don’t listen to this album enough. Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, wrote the lyrics. Ben then composed, played and sang them. Brilliant stuff.

It’s a track about soulmates. Everyone has one, but we rarely end up with them, according to Hornby. Personally, I think the idea of soulmates is a buncha baloney. I think there are probably dozens of mates we could marry. Maybe more. The trick is finding someone who feels the same way, but I mean, c’mon – you’re telling me my soulmate just happened to coincidently live right around the corner from me? Of anywhere in the world? Nah. I think we just meet people we like and love and decide to commit. Connection? Sure. But “soulmates” is a made up romantic ideal that I refuse to buy into. Sorry, Karlie.

Late – Ben Folds

MOAR BEN. Songs for Silverman is probably Ben’s most beautiful album. It lacks his Five goofiness, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking as an album. It’s just serious business.

“Late” is no different. It’s a tribute to Elliott Smith. Smith was a singer-songwriter who suffered from depression and died from stab wounds that may or may not have self inflicted. The lyric “the songs you wrote got me through a lot just want to tell you that,” is particularly meaningful – I wish more of us would take the time to share why we are important to one another. Perhaps Elliott Smith (if suicide was the cause of death) would still be with us had Ben shared this with him earlier?

Bloodstream – Ed Sheeran

How is Ed Sheeran already on my Top 2000 played list? He ascended quickly. I guess I gave this album 4 or 5 listens before writing my GRAMMY post about it.

Bloodstream is one of the better tracks on x. (It’s pronounced “multiply” – lame.) The song is about drugs/drinking – as most of Ed’s songs are. It’s dark and eerie – an outlier on x since most of the songs are either poppy fresh or acoustic chill. Here’s the whole album review.

Smile Away – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ranking the Beatles without thinking about it…

  1. Paul
  2. George
  3. John
  4. Ringo

Now, ranking the margin of victory between each ranking without thinking about it…

  1. George to John
  2. Paul to George
  3. John to Ringo

Paul is my favorite by a wide margin, but George is my second favorite by an even wider margin over John. And the fact that John is close to Ringo at all speaks volumes of how I feel about Lennon. Too political and ideological for me most of the time. Gets annoying.. George is the most talented, but Paul is the most fun and his Wings career is way too good.

Ram is one of my all time favorite albums. It stands alone as an album by  only Paul & Linda McCartney, before the rest of Wings was formed. “Smile Away” is fun and lively. The story is simple: Paul runs into a friend on the street who says he can “smell your feet/breath from a mile away.” Paul decided to brush it off and smile away. I guess it’s about positivity/not giving a rip about what others think. Which is maybe what got Kanye to tap Paul to co-produce his new album, So Help Me God, whose title was announced today.

-apc.

Religion and Hip Hop at Rice University

This popped up in my Twitter feed today via both okayplayer and BLUNTIQ and I thought I should pass it along here. 

Bun B is co-teaching a course on religion and hip hop at Rice University with Professor Anthony Pinn. There is an on-campus version of the class, but also a free online version as well. The course is six sessions. I’ve enrolled. If you have even a cursory knowledge of hip hop music, I encourage you to look into it for yourself at EdX.org.

If you enroll in the next month maybe we can go through it together!

I’m a fan of anything that reframes religion in new ways. I’m a believer that we all experience God in different ways, and that there are huge spiritual/religious intersections in all areas of life. It’s is a driving driving force behind the book project I’m working on, and in my opening chapter, I hope to encourage all people do discover where it is that they see God connecting in ways traditionally understood as non-religious or secular.

I’m not a hip hop guru like these fellas in the video (plus I’m white, and I’m unable to fully grasp the black experience that much of hip hop is rooted in), but I do love the genre and have come to appreciate it on a deeper level. I’d say I’m mostly plugged into mainstream stuff, but I was raised listening to DC Talk in elementary school (to which I’m not remotely embarrassed, but Rosenberg jokingly brings up in the interview as the band kids would pass out CDs of in the cafeteria – that wasn’t me as far as I remember). Bun B brilliantly responds that there “probably wouldn’t be Lecrae without DC Talk.”

I’m deeply invested in church culture, a current seminarian, and have great concern for how the gospel is extended in our world. Everything Eblo says regarding “Christian music” resonates strongly with my experience of the genre too – which is why I get so excited about Lecrae breaking into the Best Rap Performance category at the GRAMMYs this year. I’m tired of Christian music being labeled separately from “secular” music. It fragments the music industry and cheapens music both within and without the “Christian” genre. As if non-“Christian” music has nothing to say about God (which it does), and often “Christian” music, frankly, isn’t very good, but can survive by marketing themselves as such. There’s also a session on Islam, which excites me.

I’m enrolled in the course beginning in late March. Excited to see what Professor B has to say about the overlap between religion and hip hop.

-apc.

Image cred: EdX.org.

The 2015 Grammys in Review

Phew. Last night was crazy. I started the 2015 Grammys in the airport in Denver and finished them at home in Kansas City. I missed certain performances live due to boarding and safety information protocol, but I was able to catch up this morning on the major moments I missed the first time around.

The Grammys are a highlight for me each year. It’s basically a 3 hour concert of the greatest musicians in the world, so when people say they just can’t get into the Grammys I visualize myself giving them a wedgie before calmly responding, “that’s understandable.” No. It’s not really understandable. I mean, how often do we get to witness John Mayer, Questlove, Herbie Handcock, ELO and Ed Sheeran playing music in the same place at the same time?

It’s just a special night. It’s loads of fun.

If you’ve been following along here at all over the past month you know that I took some time to review all 5 albums up for Album of the Year, which I believe is the most important category. Last year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took home top honors. This year, it was Beck’s Morning Phase.

Beck over Bey

Going into last night, I had Beyonce as the clear favorite and Beck as a dark horse. If there was someone who was going to take down the Queen, I thought Beck had the best chance among the others. I didn’t really think it would happen, but wouldn’t you know it, the dude pulled it off.

And he deserves it. He really does. Morning Phase is a beautiful album. It’s perfect for waking up on a grey Saturday morning, dropping the needle on the turntable and sipping some coffee for the next 47 minutes.

Twice last night, Beck tried to give the spotlight to someone who was a bigger star than he is. When he accepted his award, Kanye West stood up and “pulled a Kanye” by running up like he did to Taylor Swift back in the day. He ran up and acted like he was going to do it again but pulled away at the last second, laughing. Meanwhile, Jay-Z and Beyonce were absolutely mortified until they realized he was joking.

“No, Kanye, no…bahahahaha.” And just look at Jay shaking his head. It never gets old.

Except Kanye wasn’t really joking. He made comments after the show saying that Beck should give the Grammy to Beyonce and that Beck isn’t a true artist. Major jerk move. To which Beck responded later that he thinks Kanye is a genius regardless of what he thinks of him in return.

It’s hard for me to say this because I spent a decade of my life borderline obsessed with Kanye West’s music, but I’ve finally had enough of his ego. I justified his antics when he embarrassed Taylor Swift by remembering that he was standing up for his friend, Beyonce, even if it was at the expense of someone else. You can think someone else was more deserving, but you cannot publicly claim that someone isn’t a true artist. Art is not objective, and Kanye West is not the absolute rule.

Clearly Kanye’s never seen this:

Yeah. Put a sock in it, dummy.

Anyway, when Kanye started walking away, Beck told him to come back. He invited him on to the stage with him. Weird. Then later, following his performance with Chris Martin of Coldplay, Martin intentionally faded into the background to give Beck the spotlight. Beck noticed this at the last second and ran back and tried to pull Martin back into the front.

There’s something selfless and open about Beck that is very likable. Like when he began his entire speech with “Hi, Prince.” Just so genuine and friendly. It’s sad Kanye’s antics took the spotlight away from him. Because he deserves the spotlight.

By the way, during his speech Beck also thanked David Campbell for doing the strings on Morning Phase. David Campbell is Beck’s father. Campbell has quite the resume of arrangements and I encourage you to take a quick scroll through the list on his Wikipedia page.

Top 10 Performances

According to LL Cool J at the top of the show, there were 23 performances during last night’s show – probably why the winners only goy 6 seconds to give their acceptance speeches – and while I’d like to talk about each one separately…I’m not going to.

But what I am going to do is list my Top 10 performances with a line or two about each one.

10. Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Cheek to Cheek – This song is cute, but every time I hear it, it makes me miss Amy Winehouse. She would’ve been the right choice for this song. Lady Gaga is fine, but Amy…

9. Beck featuring Chris Martin – Heart is a Drum – Listening to one song from Morning Phase is like being forced to only eat one potato chip. The performance was good, but I wanted more of the album than just this sampling.

8. Sia – Chandelier  – So Sia just stands in the corner and sings with her face to the wall while Kristen Wiig runs around dancing dramatically? Goofy stuff. But a powerful song.

7. Ed Sheeran featuring John Mayer, Questlove & Herbie Hancock – Thinking Out Loud – The first time I saw this performance, I was so entranced by John going nuts on his pink guitar that I totally missed Herbie sitting on the piano behind him. Quest is awesome. I wish he’d hung around for the ELO performance. Wish it was a funner song too – TOL isn’t my favorite of his, but I’m a big fan of large chunks of x.

6. Usher featuring Stevie Wonder – If It’s Magic – “If It’s Magic” is track two off side four of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Last year, Stevie performed “Another Star” which comes two tracks later on the same side. The song in between these two is “As” which is my all-time favorite Stevie Wonder track. Since it seems the Grammys are now attempting to cameo Stevie Wonder as much as possible while he’s still around, I’m holding out hope for an “As” performance in 2016.

5. Pharrell featuring Lang Lang – Happy – What a fantastic rendition of the song that Pharrell obviously realizes is starting to get a bit redundant in the world these days. Lang Lang provides an epic piano solo while Pharrell and his backup dancers do the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” motion. The Great Hans Zimmer comes out on guitar. I am itching for new N*E*R*D in 2015.

Pharrell continues to plow an amazing path in the world of today’s music. He’s come a long way in a really short amount of time. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes in the future with the success of not only GIRL, but also his many collaborations and productions in recent years.

4. John Legend/Common – Glory – The final performance of the Grammys. Common has one of those voices – similar to Morgan Freeman, I think – that commands attention. He’s not necessarily the best rapper, but what he lacks in cadence he makes up for in clout. He has a powerful presence and the subject matter is obviously wonderful.

Also, I love the word “glory” – in Hebrew, the word is kavod which means something has significant weight. When we glorify God, we are recognizing that God has kavod. And when we ask for his glory to reign, we are asking that his weight overcome the heavy burdens we feel in our world. Appropriate image for this performance, I think.

3. Hozier & Annie Lennox – Take Me to Church/I Put a Spell on You – Four comments about this performance: 1. Hozier looks like Madison Bumgarner. 2. You may know Annie Lennox (that woman who looks like Ellen Degeneres) from The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and her song “Walking on Broken Glass.” 3. Her new album includes a cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” 4. A song originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that you might recall from this Pringles advertisement…

2. Beyonce – Take My Hand, Precious Lord – Chills. Just chills. Over and over and over. The more I watch it, the more I love this performance. Power singing about power. Creates some exponential biological singularity situation. Brings me to my knees. Another “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” here too.

1. ELO featuring Ed Sheeran – Evil Woman/Mr. Blue Sky – I had no idea ELO was going to be performing, so when Ed announced them, I exclaimed “YES” in the airport loud enough that the woman at the gate raised her eyebrows in my direction.

In the summer of 2004, I found Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits on cassette at a used bookstore. It was one of the three cassette tapes I had in my car for about a year until I sold my 1991 Geo Prism for a new ride in 2005. Mr. Blue Sky has the power to put anyone in an immediately positive mood (most of their music has this power, I suppose). That piano in Evil Woman just gets me immediately bumpin. These two tracks probably round out my top five ELO songs along with Livin’ Thing, Don’t Bring Me Down and Strange Magic (you can keep Xanadu, no thanks).

But the best part of this performance – for the second year in a row – was Paul McCartney dancing along in the audience. In case you’ve forgotten, in 2014, we had Snap and Wiggle Paul during Daft Punk’s performance:

This year, we were awarded with an equally wonderful moment. Behold, Sing Along Standing Paul:

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Sir Paul, in the very front row, appears to be the only one standing in the entire Staples Center. But what happens here? It seems Paul makes eye contact with someone to the left of the camera, nods, then throws his hands up and sits down.

DID SOME JERK HAVE THE AUDACITY TO TELL SIR SING ALONG PAUL TO SIT DOWN?!? No one tells Paul to sit down. No one. Ever. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. But I’m not really worried. The Illuminati will likely take care of it in one quick silent movement. It’s possible that’s what Madonna’s performance was all about.

Sam Smith Wins a Bunch

Best New Artist. Record of the Year. Song of the Year. Best Pop Vocal Album. He also performed with Mary J. Blige.

Whatever. I will not argue that the dude has some crazy pipes, but the sound of his voice give me the creeps. He’s got some weird lisp thing going on along with a glottal situation that makes me want to run away when he sings. It’s unfortunate.

I can see how he could win all the categories above – people really seem to love the guy – but Taylor Swift should’ve won at least one of the two song categories for “Shake it Off.” I’m just thankful he didn’t win Album of the Year because In the Lonely Hour is just one big cryfest that never goes anywhere else.

A quick bit on Kanye

What are these new Kanye songs? “Only One” sounds like something off 808s and Heartbreaks only there’s no 808 and instead of heartbreak it’s heartfelt. So maybe it’s the opposite in terms of content, but the autotuned voice and stripped down style is NOT working for me. “FourFive Seconds” is maybe a little bit better, but if these are the tracks that are supposed to launch a new album you’re counting down to…sorry Kanye. You may have finally lost me.

But what I don’t understand, is how Paul McCartney’s touch has created this stuff. Paul is quirky and goofy and way out of the box. So is Kanye West. I’d think that if this partnership is actually going to create something, it would have to be waaaaay out there. Paul has never been one to make boring music. Kanye certainly hasn’t either. But these two songs are boring. They offer me nothing exciting and I don’t get it.

Couple that with the comments I mentioned earlier, and I’ve all but given up on Kanye West. The only thing I can figure that might save him is if this album turns out to be another stepping stone on to another chapter in his musical discography. Perhaps his forthcoming album will act like an interlude like 808s ended up doing. Who knows. But he’s on really thin ice.

A quick bit on country music

A quick comment on country music here: this years performances were good. Miranda Lambert (who I think is adorable) played early in the show, but the two that I really enjoyed were Eric Church and the Brandy Clark/Dwight Yoakam back to back performances around the halfway point.

Last year, I had a serious issue with the country music performances. I left struggling to understand the genre. What makes something “country” music these days? Is it storytelling? Because then Ed Sheeran is a phenomenal country artist. Is it the sound of their voice? Because then anyone can play country music if they just change up their twang. I don’t understand.

But this years performances seemed to fit the bill. There wasn’t an over the top voice alteration to fit the genre, and there was plenty of storytelling to go around. It wasn’t the poppy, boy band country, and it wasn’t stereotypical subject matter either. All that to say, it didn’t leave the same bad taste in my mouth as it did in 2014.

Cats on the Red Carpet

Finally, I have to share this shot of my cats – Desmond (right) and Hugo (left) – from the Red Carpet last night.

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A thousand shout outs to Maureen for her photoshopping brilliance.

That pretty much does it for the Grammys this year. Another amazing year in music comes to a close. Looking forward to the 2016 Grammys, AKA “D’Angelo Wins Everything.” Although, Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special will get some nods, and if Frank Ocean decides to exist again, I’m sure he’ll make his presence known too. Until then, it’s back to baseball for me.

-apc.

BACK TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

In the Lonely Hour – Sam Smith

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Most every romantic comedy has this in common: a minute-long segment, deep into the storyline, when everything is falling apart between the protagonist and his/her primary love interest. Both are sad and lonely but don’t if know if that sadness is reciprocated. So they flounder for a bit while they figure out their emotions.

You know the section I’m talking about – the movie cuts back and forth from one side of the broken relationship to another checking in on how each individual’s life is progressing without their other half.

It goes like this: First, she’s reading a book at a coffee shop but can’t concentrate. Cut to him distractedly working in his office glancing periodically out the window at…something. Cut to her walking a dog in the park. Cut to him shooting hoops at the gym. Then cut to her teaching preschoolers or something. Cut to him sitting in his apartment typing her 555 number into his phone, but he can’t bring himself to hit the “Call” button. He’s probably listening to Boyz II Men too. Meanwhile, she’s staring at her old corded phone on her bedside table wondering if it’s going to ring or not. And it doesn’t. Because he won’t call. It hurts too much.

And that is what we have here. That is this Sam Smith album in a nutshell. This album is angsty and melancholy and emotional and whiney…

…and it never resolves anything.

From start to finish of In the Lonely Hour – from “Money on my Mind” to “Lay Me Down” – Smith pours out his soul. It’s vulnerable. It’s gut-wrenching. It takes some serious guts to bare your soul so publicly, and admire Smith’s openness and honesty on this album. Bravo on stepping out with authenticity and boldness. Unfortunately, this album just doesn’t go anywhere. It starts bleak and ends in bleak. It’s flat. One dimensional.

As many of you know, I spend my weekends sitting in seminary classes discussing God, Church, Scripture, etc. I’m currently in a class on Worship – what is it? how do we do and why? – and part of what we have been learning is how a worship gathering is constructed. What is the goal of each element in the order of events and how does it move/lead the worshiper from normal life and into something that transcends the normal? Do the elements of worship – songs, prayers, sacraments, sermons, etc. – take the congregation somewhere religious/spiritual?

I often look for a similar movement in music: does an album move or lead the listener into something that transcends their norm? Do the songs progress and take the listener on a journey somewhere?

Good albums do this well. Past “Album of the Year” winners have done this well. Last year’s Random Access Memories by Daft Punk does this. Adele’s 21 – the 2012 winner – does this. Arcade Fire did this in 2011. Taylor Swift did this in 2010. OutKast did this with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Norah Jones did this in 2003.

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah does this, which is one of the bazillion reasons it will win everything in 2015.

Fellow AOTY nominees Beck and Beyoncé and Pharrell do this.

But In the Lonely Hour does not do this. It’s deep and emotional, sure. But that’s kind of it. It never goes anywhere. It’s one long plateau of emotion and it gets old really quick. Drop the needle at any moment on this record and you’re going to hear basically the same thing.

That said, Sam Smith has quite the pipes. His range is incredible. He’s got the range of Whitney Houston and the emotion of Norah Jones. The only gripe I have on his voice is that it sounds like he has a perpetual glottal bubble. I just want him to clear his throat or swallow.

It’s hard to find tracks that are favorites among an album that doesn’t really go anywhere. Most have the same feel to them. I guess I’ll just highlight the ones that are most popular and move along.

These are the top tracks from In the Lonely Hour

Stay with Me Sam would rather hold hands than have a one night stand, but mostly because he’s the most emotional being on the planet. This is a real heartbreaker…and so are all the others.

Lay Me Down The last song on the album. It’s basically the same song as “Stay with Me” lyrically. More heartbreak. More desire to lay next to someone. Work through your emotions, please. ZzzzZZzzz.

Money on my Mind – This is the first track on the album and probably the high point for me. It’s fun and snappy. Meh sings about doing music for the love of it…he’s not in it for the money. I could say the same thing about youth ministry.

I’m Not the Only One Wah-wahhhh. Sam knows he’s not the only one his lover (who is a dude, by the way) is with. But rather than tell it to his face, he’d rather just let it eat him up inside and sing a song about it.

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So where does In the Lonely Hour rank among the other four albums up for the top Grammy? Probably in lower half. Beyoncé and Beck are the top options. Pharrell’s album is very strong but people won’t look past the success and annoyance of “Happy.” Ed Sheeran is fun and poppy, but gets old quick – plus I’m not into the slow stuff at all. It’s all subjective at some point, but Sam Smith probably slides in between Pharrell and Ed. I’d put him last.

Don’t get me wrong – Sam Smith is talented, has a wild voice and puts out good music, which is why it’s up for Album of the Year. Just not my jam.

Looking forward to the Grammy’s on Sunday night. Hope these posts come in handy for at least one person when the big night gets here.

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 3.

It’s been a long time since I posted a Shuffle Lessons. My last SL post came on August 18, 2012 – back when I still wrote in lowercase letters and the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs in my lifetime. A few nights ago I got into a conversation about various artists from my teenage and college years – Green Day, Simple Plan, The Rocket Summer, Linkin Park to name a few – and I got a hankering to do a quick shuffle through my iTunes.

Plus I have a LOT of other writing to get done today, and things like this always provide a nice way to break through the writer’s block and get the blood flowing in the fingers a bit.

A refresher on how this works: I open iTunes, select my “Top 2000 Most Played” playlist, click “shuffle songs” and write a paragraph on the first five songs that come up. It’s very random, but with a few caveats. If another song off the same album comes up, I’m skipping it and going on to the next one. If the song provides nothing substantial out of context, I’m skipping it. Example: the track “The Library (Intro)” opens the new Childish Gambino album – It’s a 5 seconds long snippet of some spinning machinery…I’m not writing a paragraph about that despite it having 11 plays and breaking in near the bottom of my Top 2000 Most Plays playlist.

If you want to listen to the songs, the titles are all linked to each of them.

Okay. That’s all the caveats. I’m giving myself 20 minutes here so lets get started, shall we? Lettuce.

Say You Will – Kanye West

In the wake of his sample heavy and insanely popular third album, Graduation, Kanye’s mom passed away from a botched surgery and his long-time fiancé broke off their engagement. This was around 2008. We all wanted another installment of the academic-themed College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation albums, but instead we got 808s and Heartbreaks – a stripped down emotional auto-tuned album that was mostly disappointing. I guess I should’ve expected Kanye to trek into new territory after he “graduated” from his first three works, but this was too different and not remotely revolutionary. Although, looking back on this album after Dark Fantasy and Yeezus makes me realize that 808s was simply a stepping stone toward what the sound would eventually become.

“Say You Will” is the opening track to the album. Subtle piano and choir-esque “ahhs” accompanies the “beep…boop” and drum cadence that loops throughout the track. The song is fine – a perfect example of what is to come on the album.

Related: I prefer this Dido/Kanye mashup of the song…

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – Amy Winehouse

Continuing the “preceding album is one of my all-time favorites but this album was forced in another direction” theme with this one – Back to Black was one of my all-time favorites and a death caused the followup to drastically move in another direction. It was the death of Kanye’s mother that changed his direction, but the death between these albums was Amy’s own. I was on vacation in Europe in the summer of 2009 when I found out Amy Winehouse had died from drug use in Camdentown. I had been in Camdentown just two days earlier exploring the shops and pubs of the London neighborhood. It was shocking and breaks my heart still.

Thus, this track comes on her posthumous work, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. She had been recording and working on another album at the time of her death, but it’s obvious she didn’t have much work done on it because this album feels far from complete. The album is mostly covers and remixes of her old stuff with a couple new tracks. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is a cover of a track by the same name by The Shirelles from 1961. Here’s that song…

It’s a good cover – true to the original, so nothing really earth-shatteringly special. But it’s still beautiful. “WYSLMT?” has horns and backup Dreamgirls-esque vocals. I just love Amy’s voice. I can picture her in a smokey lounge sitting on a stool with a spotlight on her while she melts the hearts of everyone present. If only. RIP Amy.

Necromancer – Gnarls Barkley

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo made a wonderful team their three years of making music – way too short. They put out two albums. I love them both.

In the past, I’ve asked myself this question: which Gnarls Barkley album do I like more, St. Elsewhere (2006) or The Odd Couple (2008)? St. Elsewhere has some of my favorite Gnarls tracks – “Crazy” and “Smiley Face” and “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “The Last Time” – but The Odd Couple is a better album from start to finish. It lacks the real stinkers that St. Elsewhere has. About 75% of the time I think I like The Odd Couple more. But then “Crazy” comes on and I get thrown back to the summer of 2006 and it’s St. Elsewhere instead.

“Necromancer” is one of those stinkers. Tracks 7-12 make up the desert portion of the album, and it’s track 12. Honestly, the only time I listen to this track is when I fail 6 consecutive times to skip these tracks and go straight to track 13, “Storm Coming.” The song features distorted static vocals with a ominous dark feel to them. There’s no chorus. Just a few verses with synth solos between verses. Danger Mouse really kills it with these solos, but they’re lost between Cee-Lo’s weird verses. Moving on.

Daria – Cake

“Man, why don’t I listen to more Cake?!” – me, this past Saturday morning when I woke up and listened to two and a half of their albums – Fashion Nugget (which this song comes from), Prolonging the Magic and some Pressure Chief since I didn’t have class.

John McCrae is the vocalist for Cake. I only know his name because Ben Folds announces him following McCrae’s backup vocals on the live album version of “Fred Jones, Part II.” As you probably know, his style is unlike anything else around. Is he singing, or is he just talking? Hard to say, but I really enjoy it.

I always assumed that “Daria” was about the MTV show by the same name – Daria was a spinoff of Beavis and Butthead, which I was never allowed to watch as a kid but nevertheless quoted at the lunch table with the kids who did. But upon further research I discovered that Daria first aired in 1997 and Fashion Nugget came out in 1996. Maybe they were singing about her before she had her own show. The show featured the Cake song a couple times though, so maybe MTV and Cake were in talks about it? I sure don’t know. Anyone out there have the answer to this conundrum?

This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but only because Fashion Nugget is so strong. It’s good fun just like the rest of Cake’s stuff though. Big fan of Cake.

Pusher Love Girl – Justin Timberlake

Rounding out this Shuffle Lesson is the ultimate Vacation Track – the strings that open “Pusher Love Girl” and the entire 20/20 Experience immediately transport me to a boat in the middle of the Miami intercostal waterway. I just can’t help it. The memories this song triggers are just way too strong.

Justin is singing about Mary Camden (aka Jessica Biel, his wife) being his drug that takes makes him “so high [he’s] on the ceiling, babe” and “all [he] want[s] is [her].” The strings guide this song along with Justin’s falsetto, backup horns and a snappy cadence that immediately forces a strange and uncontrolled response of weightless arms. It’s light and airy and somehow the arms just start floating away from the sides of my body. Is it a dance? Hard to say. Again, I can’t help it. This song just gets into my bloodstream like Jessica gets into Justin’s.

I will say – this song is three minutes too long. Justin loves his extended tracks these days and this song just goes on and on about being a “junkie” for her love. I can do without part two of this track.

But now I’m turning off this vacation track so I can be productive. This was fun. On to writing some papers and some book.

-apc.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé

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Look. This is Beyoncé’s world and we ought to just be thankful we get to breathe the same air she does. Beyoncé – the album and the artist – is going to win Album of the Year, and it’s not really close.

First thing I need to bring up about this album is it’s release. Sometime in the middle of the night on December 13, 2013, it just appeared on iTunes. There was no build up. No pre-release single. No rumors or leaks. One moment it wasn’t there, and then the next moment it was. After 3 days, 800 thousand people had downloaded the album. In 10 days: 1.3 million downloads.

Apparently writing and recording had begun as far back as 2012. It’s a visual album, with 14 songs and 17 videos, and the collaborator list extends to something like 50+ individuals – from big names like Pharrell, Drake, Sia and Justin Timberlake to relatively unknown names like Boots, who produced the bulk of the tracks. And obviously her husband, Jay-Z.

How is it even possible for 50 different people to stay completely silent on the project for well over a year?! How does no one say anything for that long?! What kind of power must an individual possess in order to keep a group that large so silent for so long?

Somehow, Beyonce has risen to that level of power. This is NOT the girl from Destiny’s Child. This is not even Sasha Fierce. This is NOT the leotard wearing, hand waving diva from Single Ladies. She and her husband have managed to transcend all others on this planet. I have no hesitation in dubbing them the most powerful couple in the world.

I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking, then, to imagine that Queen Bey is capable of such a release. It really sparks the conspiracy theorist in me – what sort of power are we dealing with when it comes to Beyonce? Does she know whether the Apollo 11 mission actually landed on the moon? Does she know the truth behind the Denver Airport construction conspiracy? I mean, in the same year that her husband released an album with “Holy Grail” in the title, Beyonce manages to sneak a complete visual album on to the internet without anyone noticing or anyone saying a word? This is some serious Illuminati ish, if you ask me.

I mean? Who is she even competing with for Queen at this point? Taylor Swift? Lady Gaga? Next to Bey, these two seem off-brand. At one point on the album, Bey tells us all to “bow down, bitches,” and we basically respond, “yeah, sure…I mean, yes, ma’am.”

But here’s the other thing about the surprise release: it only worked because this album was so daggum good.

“But Adam, it’s dirty! Have you listened to the lyrics? It’s like super sexual and dark and graphic in places.”

Isn’t it though?! Yep, this isn’t the Beyonce we’re all familiar with. This Beyonce is deeper and darker and harsher than ever before. This isn’t Bootylicious or Jumpin’ Jumpin’. This isn’t Irreplaceable or even Crazy in Love. This album is hot and heavy and borderline voyeuristic in spots. This album gives us a peak inside Beyoncé’s marriage that we probably shouldn’t be allowed to see.

Beyonce is trying to say something about marriage. In a culture where the sanctity of marriage is rare, the divorce rate is skyrocketing and promiscuity is borderline applauded, suddenly there’s Beyonce and Jay-Z. She’s telling us that marriage can be ultra sexy and desirable. Sex isn’t only attractive when it’s promiscuous – marriage can be steamy too. This isn’t a message we receive often in our culture.

It’s actually refreshing to listen to an album and know exactly who the artist is singing about. When she sings about how she’s “Drunk in Love” and the last thing she remembers is “our beautiful bodies grinding up in that club” – you know exactly who she’s dancing with. Jay-Z is the focus of every love interest-focused lyric. It’s an interesting twist we don’t see often in music these days. This is like John Lennon and Yoko Ono only instead of breaking up the Beatles they basically rule the entire planet.

But its not just about Bey and Jay – it’s also about motherhood. The last track on the album is called “Blue” after her daughter and future destroyer of worlds, Blue Ivy Carter. Blue undoubtedly has achieved genetic superiority over the rest of mankind. (It’s also been rumored that Beyonce is pregnant with #2. Or, should I say, they’ve hired another surrogate for round two.) Blue even gets her first vocal spot at the end of the album: “Hold on to me! Hold on!” Beyonce is positioning herself as a wife and mother – and one with all sorts of power.

This whole album exudes power. There’s even a track titled “Superpower” with Frank Ocean (naturally, my favorite track on the album since I’m a sucker for anything Frank does). It’s a feminist album. Women are powerful, and Beyonce the most powerful of them all.

Flawless” incorporates a spoken feminist speech from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that questions how we have taught women to view themselves – as lesser, smaller, less powerful and less free to be sexual and ambitious as men. There’s no mistaking the agenda here. Beyonce ought to be applauded for her willingness to unabashedly fight for how her gender is represented. The album reframes multiple aspects of womanhood – marriage and kids, sure, but power and influence and sexuality too.

The album took a risk and moved Beyonce away from being a poppy, Top 40 artist and toward the heart of the hip-hop/rap genre.

The tracks are occasionally disjointed – longer tracks, seemingly two song in one at times – and there are a half dozen jarring moments into audio clips of musical competitions from Beyoncé’s childhood or paparazzi crowds. The tracks are structured in completely different ways. It’s tough to find a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure on this album. “Haunted” – for example – incorporates multiple movements: an intro audio clip, an opening verse and a spoken section all lead up to the actual track which doesn’t really begin until 3 minutes into the song. It’s a journey from movement to movement rather than a typical pop album from track to track. The exceptions are “XO” and “Drunk in Love” – the first two singles for the album – which are probably the most well known tracks but the ones I’m the least jazzed about.

Let’s take a quick track-by-track look at the album and wrap this thing up…

Pretty Hurts – Written by Sia. It’s a song about beauty and self worth. Not my favorite. Also, I can’t stand that the open to the whole album is some guy asking Beyonce (aka Miss Third Ward) what her aspiration in life is at some beauty pagent. Meh.

Haunted Already mentioned the structure of this song, but it’s one of my favorites. Eerie and ominous.

Drunk in Love – Surfbort.

Blow – An upbeat Pharrell and JT track. It’s basically the same lyrical content as Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum” and just as awkward in spots.

No Angel – Least favorite song on the album. I usually skip it. It’s the only one I can say that about. Lots of breathy vocals from Bey. Just not a fan.

Partition – The most explicit track on the album, hands down. Things get hot in the back of a limo and “we ain’t even gonna make it to this club.” The intro percussion was conceived by JT.

Jealous – Interesting conflict in the marriage conversation. The wife is home cooking dinner for her man in the buff…”so where the hell you at!?” But seriously, Beyonce gets jealous? Doubtful.

Rocket – Oooooo a slow jam?!? Smooth and sultry. Beyonce has even said it reminds her of D’Angelo’s “Untitled.”

Mine – This song features Drake. I’m not a big Drake fan, but this song is beautiful. “I just wanna say, you’re mine all mine” the chorus croons.

XO – The single. If this was all you heard off this album, you might think this is the same ole Beyonce.

Flawless – The feminist track. Coined the phrase “I woke up like this.”

Superpower – In a world starved for more Frank Ocean, this track feels like a Godsend. Amazing how similar their voices are – nailing the insanely low end of the register but able to go high too. I’m praying for a new Frank Ocean album in 2015.

Heaven – A song about death?! Woah. Sad and dark, but freeing at the same time.

Blue – A song for and about her daughter, Blue. But don’t be fooled by the sappy subject matter – this song is legit.

There you go. The album that I believe is a no brainer for Album of the Year. And deservedly so. When someone inevitably makes some comment about how the Grammys just give awards to the biggest names, I’ll be here to remind you that the biggest names are huge for a reason.

This album is insane, and deserves any award it receives.

My Top Tracks: Superpower, Haunted, Flawless, Mine

-apc.

The other albums up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Morning Phase – Beck

81coqLBpCWL._SL1400_Beck is up for Album of the Year at the Grammys? File that one under, “didn’t even know he made an album in 2014.”

My scope for Beck is admittedly narrow. I know his biggest hits – namely “Loser” and “Where It’s At” – as well as anyone, but the rest of his catalogue is basically foreign. I know two of his albums, really: I got into Guero (the songs “E-Pro” and “Girl” specifically) back in college for a few months, and his fifth studio album, Odelay, is more of a word I’ve heard before than an album I’ve listened to at all. Overall, I’d say I’m clued into about 4% of the music Beck has put out. Why so low? Mostly because his discography includes TWELVE STUDIO ALBUMS. He’s putting out music like he’s U2, only instead of forcing it upon anybody with an iTunes account, he never told anyone.

It’s pretty amazing a guy who was worried about becoming a one-hit-wonder back in the early 90’s has suddenly had three different albums nominated at the Grammys for Album of the Year (Odelay, 1997; Midnite Vultures, 2001; Morning Phase, 2015). Beck keeps making music and it keeps getting critically high praise.

Beck’s real name is Bek Hansen. He was born Bek Campbell but his parents divorced and he took his mom’s name. He dropped out of school after 8th grade. At 19 he moved to New York with a guitar and eight dollars. He was basically homeless on both coasts for many years, living on friends couches that he met in NYC. His transient upbringing led to a variety of influences. Sometimes he would play gigs at bars or coffee shops and people wouldn’t really be paying attention so he’d start making up ridiculous lyrics to see if anyone would notice.

Beck wrote “Loser” as a goofy side project that he didn’t really think much of. When he moved back to LA it got released as a single and blew up on the radio. Still essentially homeless, he thought it was a mediocre song, but suddenly record companies were in a crazy bidding war over him. He signed with Greffen Records which basically just told him to do whatever he wanted – probably why he picked them over others.

I can’t figure out who Beck really is. I get the vibe he’s an anxious songwriter who fears getting labeled as…anything really, but especially a one-hit-wonder. It seems like any time Beck begins to get pigeon-holed as some sort of genre or “type” of artist, he pushes back and becomes anti-that. His time in New York found him heavily involved in the anti-folk movement, and he seems to have adopted the “anti-” mindset all the time.

Name a music genre and I bet he’s associated with it. Most of the awards he has won or been nominated for are in the “alternative” or “rock” categories – which basically means nothing anymore – but he sites hip-hop as a major influence as well as Latin music. Both are likely due to the neighborhoods where he grew up in poorer areas of LA. He’s electronica. He’s folk. He’s anti-folk. He’s funk, and soul, and blues. He studied R. Kelly (insert Trapped in the Closet reference here) and his R&B style. Pitchfork said his album Midnight Vultures “wonderfully blends Prince, Talking Heads, Paul’s Boutique [by the Beastie Boys], ‘Shake your Bon-Bon’ [by Ricky Martin], and Mathlete.”

Beck seems to have much higher standards for himself than the rest of the public does for him. He thought Loser was average, but the public loved it. He writes dozens of songs and then scraps them all and only uses 1 for the final record. There’s a story of Beck writing something like 40 songs, recording them on to cassettes and then leaving a briefcase full of said cassettes backstage at a show and losing them forever. Seemingly every record is a hodgepodge of old songs he’s recorded that he throws together when he feels it’s time to release more content. It’s like he’s Apple or something – he has everything everyone wants already locked and loaded, it’s just a matter of the rest of the world reaching the point where they’re asking for it.

All that to say, Beck’s all over the place. His transformation album to album is insane. Even back to back releases are can be night and day. His last album, Modern Guilt was produced by Danger Mouse (!!!) and sounds like it was produced by Danger Mouse. It’s funky and electronic. It’ll make you bump and groove.

That was 2008 and it’s been 6 years. So I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Morning Phase for a listen and a review. Only 29 more days til Grammy night. Gotta toughen up.

But wait – this isn’t the quirky, all-over-the-place Beck I was expecting. This is mellow. Chill. Subdued. This album is more like Iron and Wine or Sigur Ros or Guster than it is any of those bands Pitchfork mentioned back in 1999. Morning Phase is deep strings and sustained piano chords. It doesn’t jump around like Beck’s early records do, this one is cohesive throughout. It’s easy listening – an acoustic record you might put on after you wake up while you work on a sudoku or read the sports page and sip on coffee – especially if the temperature is in the single digits. It feels like a sunrise over a chilly pasture. I bet the directors of Pride and Prejudice wish they could go back in time and use this album for that juicy emotional scene when Darcy tells Elizabeth that his affections have not changed. (“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I luh…I luff…“)

Apparently the foundational tracks for Morning Phase were written in 2005 – that’s nearly a decade ago, by the way – but Beck tabled them until 2012 when he began to expand on “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down” (featuring a harmonica solo) and “Waking Light” which hold down the back half of the album, the latter coming at the end. Interesting that the songs that drive the whole album would end up on the B-Side. Here’s “Waking Light” the song that concludes the record…

Beck kinda looks like Michael Cera.

It’s hard to pick out other favorite tracks off an album that is so solid from start to finish (I’m having the same problem with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah too – love em all). I suppose “Blue Moon” is the single for a reason, so I should probably share it next.

It’s a sad and melancholy album, but there’s no denying that this album is beautiful and deserves to be nominated for a Grammy. If history has anything to say about it, Beck will probably lose out to a more mainstream album (read: Beyonce), but should take home other categorial honors instead. Morning Phase is up for Best Rock Album, Song and Performance (for “Blue Moon”) against the likes of Ryan Adams, Jack White, The Black Keys and Utoo.

If I were voting, I’d pick it for Best Rock Album of the year and give Song/Performance to Ryan Adams/Jack White for “Gimme Something Good” and “Lazaretto.” This album ought to be critiqued as a unit and not as an individual song. Blue Moon is nice, but the entire 47 minute album is where its at (see what i did there?).

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

x – Ed Sheeran

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I’m not a musician.

I took piano lessons for something like eight or ten years when I was a kid. I started when I was 7 and quit sometime in high school. I never learned how to read sheet music without counting “Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine,” so at a certain point (high school) the music got too difficult to play by ear. I don’t have many regrets in life, but dropping the piano instead of finding a jazz piano teacher who can teach playing by ear could be considered a regret. Maybe there’s still time. Life after seminary.

Today, I can play most piano chords – C, F#, D7, Asus2, G, Emaj7, etc. – throw it at me and I can look at the keys and play it. I understand chord progressions. I can sit down at a piano and play through most any song as long as I’m given the chord progression. I can even figure out the melody if I’ve listened to a song enough times. But I’m not a musician, and I don’t review albums as if I am.

I do, however, know how to groove.

I like percussion, cadence, chord progressions, samples and lyrical flow among other things. Strings are gorgeous. Gimme a dirty bassline (see: “Don’t” on this album) and I can’t get enough. The tone of an artist’s voice is more important to me than what they’re singing about. I don’t care much for actual lyrical content – songwriting is impressive and creative, absolutely, but for some reason my ear doesn’t hear the words themselves. I don’t know the words to some of my all time favorite songs.

When I listen to music, my mind is not tuned into the meaning or language in songs. I’m in it to experience the groove. I feel music more than I listen to it.

Friends who know me well will respond: “Whatever. You know all the words to all the songs we listened to on that road trip we went on that one time.” True. And some artists are easy for me to actually hear and internalize lyrical content – hip hop, boy bands, pretty much anything I digested between 1998 and 2004 – these are exceptions. When I take in an album for the first time (Ed Sheeran’s x, for example) I don’t hear the words themselves as much as I hear their sound and flow (both areas where Ed excels greatly).

I say all this to make sure we’re all on the same page for where these album reviews come from: I am a consumer. My angle is not remotely “expert” on anything besides my own personal experience of music.

If you’re purely a consumer like me, then these reviews are for you.

Disclaimer over. On to the review.

***

It’s pronounced “multiply,” which is an extremely annoying album title, but follows up nicely to Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (pronounced “plus”) which is equally goofy.

But that’s pretty much where my negativity ends with this album. Ed Sheeran is fantastic. x is predominantly acoustic guitar centered with strong percussion/piano parts, but what truly drives the sound Ed Sheeran’s work is his vocal cadence. He’s quick and clever with his flow. His crooning quickly gets into my shoulders and neck area and gets me bobbing around.

The only song I really knew off this album prior to my first listen this week was “Sing,” and I was already a big fan. It came across Justin Timbelake-ish. It’s the high range vocals that do it – every time he goes up, he sounds like JT. Turns out, that track is produced by Pharrell Williams and while I was doing some research I literally read, “Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, was a favourite of Sheeran’s, which he consciously tried to channel for ‘Sing,'” on Wikipedia. Well, boom. Talk about stroking my listening ego.

Take a listen here…(warning: video contains puppets)…

Caveat here: Sheeran wanted to keep “Sing” off the album and work more exclusively with Pharrell and put it on a future album. It’s the only Pharrell track on the album, so it’s naturally one of my favorites. But let’s be honest: if Ed puts out a full album with Skateboard P he’ll win multiple Grammys. You heard it here first. We’ll revisit it in a couple or three years. #Grammys2017?

Also, I’m not sure everyone realizes just how impressive Pharrell Williams is. I mentioned this in my review of G I R L earlier this year, but everything the dude touches turns to gold. But this isn’t a Pharrell post, so moving on.

This album keeps me bringing me back to Adele. Not necessarily in the sound, but in the content. This whole album is about Sheeran’s heart being broken and drinking/drugging his sorrows away. He’s not happy with this chick, and it’s entirely to our benefit. I’ve often thought if Adele falls in love and gets married we’re going to lose out on a lot of quality music. I might feel the same way here. Nobody wants to hear cute love songs (okay some people do, but I don’t) – we want tales of heartbreak and anger and frustration. WE want songs that get under our skin and make us feel something strong. That’s how Ed is like Adele – okay, they’re both British too.

Sheeran clearly has a bent toward self-medication. The entire focus of “Bloodstream” is feeling the chemicals kicking in as he tries to recover from broken heart. Those are his words, not mine. He mentions drinking away his sadness in multiple songs – which ALWAYS reminds me of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton and Jamie Foxx get the most mentions on how Ed Sheeran hit it big. Now I’m picturing the three of them hanging out at the booth from Horrible Bosses drinking cider – Elton and Ed on one side of the booth and Motherf*cker Jones drinking from a straw on the other. I digress.

While the core of the album is groovy and fast-paced, “One” is an odd choice for an opener upon first take. It’s directed toward the same love interest from +, which feels opposite from the rest of the album. However, it makes sense when partnered with track 2, “I’m a Mess.” By opening the album with love, it actually manages to pull the listener into the heartbreak deeper. Ed’s like, “here’s this love that I had, and now I’m going tell you how I jacked everything up and now I’m broken hearted.” And I’m like, “thanks, but no thanks, Ed. I wish I’d never met this girl so I wouldn’t have to feel your heartbreak as much.” It’s better for it though. “One” is a cute lead track that I’m sure the sentimental ladies really swoon over.

Apparently “One” was the first track recorded too, which makes me believe the track layout is less about the ebb and flow of the album as much as mirroring the story of Ed Sheeran’s own life. I wonder…is the track list simply in order of when he wrote them? Hmmm.

I should also mention this nugget: Ed Sheeran can rap. “The Man” and “Take It Back” are both straight rap. Don’t let his lyrics convince you otherwise: “I’m not a rapper/I’m a singer with a flow,” he says in the latter track. Malarky, I say. This is acoustic rap and it’s so good. It is a bit strange to hear someone with an English accent rapping – just different. The sound has a subtle enough difference that it sounds like something fresh and new.

There’s a balance between up-tempo grooves and stripped down acoustic ballads here. I’m a huge fan of the former and kinda meh about the latter – shocker, I know. Overall, it’s a very strong album. Henceforth, I’ll proudly claim to be an Ed Sheeran fan.

Top Tracks (no particular order):
– Sing
– Take it Back
– The Man
– Don’t
– Bloodstream

x is up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2015 Grammys. His competition for AOTY: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell and Beck. His competition for BPVA: Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith.

As of this post, I think he’s the front runner for BPVA, but will lose out to Queen Bey in AOTY.

One last thing before I go: I’m planning reviews for all 5 albums up for Album of the Year. Potentially more than that if I really get into this. You can find the other links here (will update links as posts are released).

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

-apc.

G I R L – Pharrell Williams

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Note: I wrote this track by track review prior to knowing it would be nominated for Album of the Year. So this may not follow the same pattern as the other 4 posts in this Grammys series.

There at least three possible arguments for why I completely missed on this album two months ago.

The first is the typical excuse: I was too busy and wasn’t paying attention to music enough in the wake of Grammy season and was focusing more on class, my book project and my impending pilgrimage to Burma. This sounds good, but it’s mostly just an excuse.

Second, where was the promotion for this album?! I never heard anything about it – heck, Billboard announced it’s release date less than two weeks before it dropped on March 3. It seems like it blindsided the whole industry: “Happy” was majorly circulated with Despicable Me 2 coming out in the fall, and his heavy collaborations with Daft Punk on R.A.M. and with Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke/T.I. on “Blurred Lines” didn’t really leave the possibility for a solo record. Besides, last time he put out any solo work – In My Mind, in 2006 – it didn’t necessarily dominate my iTunes.

The third reason is the most interesting. About two years ago, I started wondering if N*E*R*D – Pharrell’s band along with The Neptunes co-producer Chad Hugo and Shay Haley – would put out a new record to follow up their disappointing Nothing from 2010.

So I set up a Google Alert for any news on N*E*R*D’s new record.

I got weekly updates for about a year, but nothing substantial on the record front. Then, in 2013, I finally started seeing some stuff circulating about how they were working on a new record, but that it wouldn’t be released for a while because of Pharrell’s side work. I guess I just assumed that if N*E*R*D wasn’t putting out something new anytime soon, then Pharrell certainly wouldn’t put out something on his own. Just didn’t compute.

Then in late March someone, I forget who, asked me what I thought of Pharrell’s new album that I didn’t even know existed at that point. And then I got caught up in my excuses again and forgot to download it.

All that to say – and it’s a lot, in retrospect – I finally picked up the album last week and haven’t stopped to listen to anything else. All last week on The West Coast, this was my jam.

It’s been referred to as a “pseudo-feminist” concept album, seemingly in response to his affiliation with the controversial “Blurred Lines” performance from the 2013 VMAs. It’s clear that he wanted to rebrand himself as…something else.

These days, it seems like anything Pharrell touches turns to gold. “Blurred Lines” was huge. I don’t think I’ve spent a day anywhere in this country over the past month without hearing “Happy” two or three times. And “Get Lucky” was the hugest of them all taking home top Grammy nods this year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

And yet, I did not expect this solo album to be as good as it is. Here’s a track by track look at G I R L.

1. Marilyn Monroe

First of all, Hans Zimmer did all the strings on this album, and this one is the stringiest there is. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement opens the album and is coupled with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs a la “Get Lucky”. The track opens the feminist theme, questioning why he would ever want to lose the girl that even Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc can compare to.

2. Brand New (Duet with Justin Timberlake)

One of the perks of completely missing on an album is that you don’t build up any expectation for should-be killer collaborations. This track is a little cheesy, especially the bridge, but I guess that’s what we should expect from a song about how a woman makes a man a better person – a “brand new” man, if you will. And a little Timbaland beatbox intro really, because JT can’t go anywhere without him apparently. Also, did you know: Pharrell and Timbaland were friends as kids?

3. Hunter

Not my favorite track, which is surprising because it has a heavy N*E*R*D sound to it. Goofy lyrics. Simple looped guitar riff. The occasional heavy breathing in the background. It’s Pharrell doing his best impression of himself sans Hugo and Haley.

4. Gush

A transition song, but a strong one. Sure, Pharrell wants to respect and not abuse the woman that makes him better, but that doesn’t mean he’s doesn’t want to get a little dirty. The chorus here is strong. Zimmer returns with the orchestra.

5. Happy (From “Despicable Me 2”)

We all know this song. Not really necessary to write about it other than to say that it’s a super fun doo-wop that I still catch myself snapping my fingers along with. But c’mon man. Track 5? This song startles me every time I’m listening to the album. I skip it about 75% of the time.

6. Come Get It Bae (Feat. Miley Cyrus)

This song has the feel of a group drumming on 5 gallon plastic buckets on a street corner. Lots of claps. A hint of strings and guitar. But mostly a stomp-style groove. This song is all about riding a motorcycle. But it’s a metaphor, you guys. Surprisingly, I actually like what Miley adds to this song – although, the “hey!” that runs throughout the song gets really old really fast.

7. Gust of Wind (Feat. Daft Punk)

Not shocking, but this is in the conversation for my favorite track. Marilyn Monroe is the front runner, but this one is right there too. Those robot vocoder voices are just so mesmerizing. I can’t help myself.

8. Lost Queen

The album takes a turn here. This song feels like it should be the last track. It brings us back to the “taking care of you is my number one thing” theme. Tribal hums and bongos drums give the first half of this song a raw human quality, and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Earth is so messed up, but this “Lost Queen” is so perfect it has to be from some other planet. This track is 8 minutes long. The middle minute is nothing but the sound of crashing waves. The second half feels like we’ve moved off Earth and into outer space. Probably Pharrell trying to communicate where this woman takes him.

9. Know Who You Are (Duet with Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys!? Woah. This feels surprising for some reason. They seem to be from different edges of the hip hop spectrum for some reason. Pharrell gets me moving and pumps me up. Alicia’s voice just melts everything. It’s a decent song, but I can’t get over that dichotomy when I listen to it.

10. It Girl

This song is a short lyrical wrap up with an extended outro to close the album. It also has one of the best moments on the album when Pharrell takes his voice as high as it’ll go – so high that I don’t really know what he says. It’s a song with a bunch of nautical terms in relation to how this “It Girl” just does it for Pharrell: seasick without her, she’s got his compass spinnin’, her waves crash over him and and her tide pulls him in. It’s a metaphor, you guys.

Overall, it’s a very strong album, and Pharrell’s gold-touch apparently works with his solo stuff too. He even makes that goofy Arby’s hat look good.

Side note: I’ve been told on two separate occasions that I look like Pharrell. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.

Another side note: nearly all these track titles would make terrific horse names for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

Top Tracks: Marilyn Monroe, Gust of Wind, Gush

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

The 2014 Grammys in Review

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So the Grammys were Sunday night. I chose to watch them over the Pro Bowl. I probably should have been interested in the TEN Chiefs players involved in the game. Rumor has it that Tony Gonzalez’s last catch of his career was from the Chiefs’ Alex Smith. Pretty poetic stuff right there.

But no, I was watching the Grammys, which are usually a January highlight for me. And this year’s did not disappoint. Daft Punk won big and performed, so basically anything else that took place was icing. Here are a few takeaways from what I saw on Sunday night.

Daft Punk + Stevie Wonder = Instant Greatness

Daft Punk teams up with Pharrell, Nile Rogers from Chic and Stevie Wonder for a Get Lucky/Another Star mash-up (with a little “Freak Out” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in there too). So amazing.

I really hope the robots are working on a 2015 version of Alive 2007. One of my first takeaways from Random Access Memories was that parts of it seemed like a set-up for something bigger. Much like parts of Homework did. This time they managed to weave the whole record together in a way that hides the pieces within the whole, but I fully anticipate an epic mash-up album sometime in the next couple years.

All that to say, I’ll be listening to Stevie Wonder constantly this week. I might even dabble in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (which i found on vinyl for $3, and couldn’t help myself).

I should also note that Pharrell’s hat was ridiculous and Stevie came off a little creepy early on. But the whole thing seemed to mesh once Guy & Tom showed up in those robot suits that looked nothing like Stormtroopers. More like Dr. Evil, really.

Check out the performance here.

I continue to be perplexed by country music.

First of all, I don’t even know what the genre means anymore. You’re telling me that Willie Nelson, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, recent John Mayer, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban and Kasey Musgraves (whoever that is?) are all in the same genre?

The way I’ve heard country music defined in the past is that it is all about storytelling. And I can respect that. But when the story is the same in all the songs – mostly goofy cliches and quips about trucks and whiskey and dirt and parent-child relationships – it all runs together into one lame story that I’ve heard a million times.

Plus, it just sounds terrible. You’re telling me that girl Kasey Musgraves had the best country album this year? What, did no one else release anything? She wouldn’t even make it past the battle rounds on The Voice, no matter how liquored up Blake Shelton gets.

The country performances happen, tons of people go nuts in person and on twitter. Martina McBride comes out and mentions how amazing that performance was, and I’m like…it was? I don’t understand.

There is some country music that I love – Garth Brooks is awesome, John Mayer’s new album is great. I even understand the draw of the Dixie Chicks and Rascall Flatts and other bands I find obnoxious. That stuff makes sense, but it’s just not for me. Usually I leave those performances perplexed and searching for answers. Just doesn’t make sense.

Paul McCartney is one of my favorite people ever.

Did you guys see him snapping his fingers and dancing around to the Daft Punk performance? Has anyone made a GIF of that yet? I don’t know how to do it, otherwise I would. Watch the performance video I linked up above and jump to 3:32. Hilarious.

Paul always seems like he’s having a blast, but doesn’t have a care in the world. His reunion performance with Ringo was hilarious in that light – Ringo was thrilled to be there, and Paul seemed like it was just another day at the office. It’s whatever. Just one of the most influential musicians ever.

Anyway, in his nonchalance, he took home 5 Grammys last night.

UPDATE: I have found it. Look at all those snaps. I love you, Internet.

How did Random Access Memories win Album of the Year?

I mean, I loved the album. It was one of my favorites of this past year, and I haven’t done any serious thought as to which albums trump it, but it certainly didn’t seem like it should have won Album of the Year. It’s not even Daft Punk’s best album (Discovery), and it’s not even the best album ever called RAM (what’s up Paul McCartney?), but somehow it beat out Sara Bareilles, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar and MacLemore/Ryan Lewis.

Oh, that’s why it won. Not much competition there.

No offense to the other four – especially to Sara B., who I think it phenomenal – but they’re just not going to win that category. If Drake or Jay-Z or Beyonce or Kanye or some indie band, then Daft Punk may have been in trouble. But those four don’t have the clout to take home the top spot. Maybe Taylor Swift was the biggest competition, but it just didn’t feel right. Just my opinion.

Even still, it’s surprising to see a French robot electronica duo step into the Grammys and clean up. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the Grammys, I think. It sorta felt like they were being rewarded for past greatness. I mean, RAM was pretty good, but it wasn’t THAT good. I think they really rode the wave of one giant hit – Get Lucky – and that was enough to take home both Record and Album of the Year.

The only other song that has even made it to the public is Doing it Right…which is terrible. Felt like a weird category this year.

Wait…Bobby Bland died?!

Today, Bobby “Blue” Bland is probably best recognized for being sampled by Kanye on my favorite track off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)“. The audio is also huge in car commercials.

5017261200631-2The album the the sampled track comes off of is called Dreamer, and it is wonderful. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. He’s looking at you, in this gorgeous shirt, with the smoke from his cigarette swirling all around him.

Bobby does this crazy thing with his voice that makes it sound like one of those fish-shaped percussion instruments that you played in music class in elementary school. It’s called a “guiro”, and his voice somehow breaks into it randomly and makes this bizarre vibrato/loogie hocking sounds that, if i’m honest, disgusts me just a little bit. But it’s so fascinating and unlike anything I’ve ever heard, I still have to give him props for it.

Anyway. When the Grammys was running through it’s “who died this year” montage, his name was the biggest one to jump out to me. I didn’t know he had passed away. Maybe I’ll have to put on Dreamer whenever I’ve had enough of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

And lastly, Jamie Foxx is the worst.

He was high, right? Or at least drunk? Or is that what he is like all the time? His was the presenter for best Rock/Rap Collaboration. Here’s a sampling of what he did during his short and awkward time on stage…

1. got lost trying to find the podium
2. he hit on Beyonce.
3. he did a horrendous Ringo Starr impression
4. he apologized to Jay-Z about hitting on Beyonce
5. proceeded to claim that he “had his way” with her backstage
6. lost track of where he was while he was listing the nominees
7. just quit talking at one point when he didn’t have anything interesting to say about Kendrick Lamar
8. then mumbled another gibberish comment about Beyonce

Then, lo and behold, Jay-Z wins the award and comes up on stage and saves the whole thing. He whispers something in Beyonce’s ear, hugs Jamie Foxx, and calls out to his daughter, “Hey Blue! Daddy just won you a new gold sippy cup!”

Way to go Jay. Take the high road and save the day.

Just a few thoughts. I have more, but I set a 30 minute limit on writing this post. So that will have to do.

-apc.

ben folds top ten.

benfolds20112there are so many incredible options, that i feel like i ought to begin with a handful of tracks that didn’t quite make the top ten cut. in no particular order…

jackson cannery – ben folds five
alice childress – ben folds five
best imitation of myself – ben folds five
selfless, cold and composed – whatever and ever amen***
smoke – whatever and ever amen
battle of who could care less – whatever and ever amen***
losing lisa – rockin’ the suburbs
annie waits – rockin’ the suburbs***
you to thank – songs for silverman
get your hands off my woman – super d EP

dr. yang – way to normal***
a working day – lonely avenue
the sound of the life of the mind – the sound of the life of the mind

*** – denotes “first four out” (to use bracketology terminology)

10. narcolepsy, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
this song is way too hilarious to leave off the list which is why it comes in just ahead of these other tracks. sometimes ben’s humor can come off as childish and silly and it ruins the song, but this one he gets just right. the opening instrumental dupes you into thinking it’s going be a serious orchestral track. then the lyrics sound serious, but they’re NOT.

9. your dogs, ben folds & nick hornby – lonely avenue
for those of you who don’t know: nick hornby wrote “high fidelity”. so this album, as i understand it, is ben’s music with nick’s lyrics. it’s like the postal service only this ben is doesn’t suck. anyway, this track is all about how ben’s got this white trash neighbor who he claims he doesn’t judge but then basically does throughout the song. but we all do this right? it’s genius. and, as usual, when his social-consiousness sky rockets, so does ben’s humor.

8. erase me, ben folds five – the sound of the life of the mind
too soon? i wrestled including anything from this album due to it’s recent release, but this song is too great. besides, i have to celebrate the “five” reunion somehow, right? “erase me”…it’s a harsh divorce song that gets increasingly clever as the track progresses as ben comes up with different ways to explain how she “erased him” from her life. two interesting notes here: “option command escape” doesn’t actually erase anything. it just opens the “force quit” menu on OS X…also, on a sadder note, as of 2011, ben has been married and divorced 4 times now. so maybe i shouldn’t be celebrating this song afterall.

7. all you can eat, ben folds – sunny 16 EP
as a whole, i’m not estatic about the sunny 16, speed graphic and super d EPs (complied into the supersunnyspeedgraphic LP). it comes across as a hodge-podge of tracks that ben recorded in the mid-00s that never made it on to other albums. but there are some bright spots. specifically, “all you can eat”. the scene unfolds as an american dad pontificating to his son about the wealthy, greedy and overweight americans he sees around the restaurant where they’re eating. the line “god made us number one cause he loves us the best/but he should go bless someone else for a while and give us a rest” is one of my favorites in all of music.

6. mess, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
this song is gut-wrenching and i initially didn’t want to include it in my top ten simply because i didn’t want to have to write about it. ben has screwed up so many relationships that he’s decided to hide the parts of himself that are potentially messy in the future. he stuck alone in his mess of a life. the last verse is haunting – he images his life as an old house with abandoned dusty rooms. those are the parts of his life he’s going to guard in the future. and if that doesn’t seem lonely enough – the chorus admits that he doesn’t even believe that god is there. poor guy.

5. silver street, ben folds – ben folds live
apparently i really dig the depressing ben folds tracks because, once again, this song is pretty depressing. the neighborhood ben sings about here sounds like a ghost town. silver street is old and sad and dying. i picture a bunch of old men sitting on their porches watching the tumbleweeds roll through town. but really, this song is here because i’m a sucker for a gorgeous piano.

4. gone, ben folds – rockin the suburbs
in my opinion, this is the most underrated ben folds song there is. “rockin’ the suburbs” was the first album i really loved by ben. i used to drive my sister to school and listen to the first three tracks (annie waits, zak and sara, still fighting it) every day on the way. we’d never make it to track four, “gone”). then three out of the last four tracks are some of the most well known of all of his songs (not the same, rockin the suburbs, the luckiest). all those songs suddenly feel too mainstream to me, and it feels like there’s a shadow of popularity that i associate with them that makes me feel uneasy. but this song – this song is under played and undervalued.

3. one angry dwarf and 200 solumn faces, ben folds five – whatever and ever amen/ben folds live
i’m glad i didn’t go to elementary or middle school with ben because he’d probably hate me too. it’s like how when adele gets her heart broken, we all benefit because she sings songs about it…only with ben it’s getting made fun of as a kid. to whoever the o’doyle was that decided it’d be fun to call ben an angry elf – thank you. the angrier this dwarf gets, the better his musical responses are.

2. the last polka, ben folds five – ben folds five
this song has the most plays of any ben folds song in my itunes. there was a time (around 2005) when i discovered that the closer to BFF’s conception i got, the more i liked their music…which, now that i reflect on this list, is increasingly evident. also, if you know me well, you know that i’m a fantastic air pianist, and this is arguably the most fun anyone can ever have playing air piano.

1. lullabye, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
okay okay okay. i know you’re all thinking, “you just like that song because he mentions james earl jones.” and you may have a point actually. this song has a weird dream-like thing going on and it captivates me every time i hear it. the story ben is telling actually doesn’t seem very memorable to him. the facts are clearly a little mixed up – unless james earl jones was a family friend, it seems very unlikely that he was there. i wonder if this is one of ben’s earliest memories? the piano is mesmerizing and i could actually see myself singing a kid to sleep to this song someday. i can’t get enough…and the piano solo makes me head to this weird groovy swagger bob thing that probably looks awesome to all the other people in this coffee shop right now.

-apc.

the daft punk commercial.

last weekend, during SNL, daft punk aired a 15-second commercial. they also updated their website and facebook page with simply a photo. this photo:

daft-punk-confirm-signing-with-columbia-1i wasn’t watching SNL when the commercial aired. ohhhh man i wish i had been. i would’ve freaked. absolutely bizonkers. i probably would’ve ended up running around my house like kevin mccallister in home alone. probably would’ve wet my pants a lot a bit also.

the commercial is an allusion to their upcoming album that is rumored to be dropping in may of this year.

ahem. excuse me.

ITS SUPPOSED TO DROP IN MAY OF THIS YEAR. THAT’S TWO MONTHS AWAY. HIT THE FREAKOUT BUTTON.

the video was accompanied by a bit of a song that i’ve never heard before. it’s clearly DP, but since the commercial was so short, i wasn’t really able to get a terrific grasp of it. but some genius somewhere decided to loop the track for 10-minutes straight. i dare you to listen to it without bobbing your head. seriously. good luck.

-apc.

haiku reviews – frank ocean. jack white. bruno mars.

how about some haiku reviews?! it’s been six months since i first did any of these. you can see the first set of haikus here. each album gets three things: a haiku, my top 3 fav songs, and a rating out of 5. this time around: frank ocean, jack white and bruno mars.

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1. frank ocean – channel orange

cannot get enough
occasional stevie sounds
better than mumford

favorite tracks:
1. pyramids (one of my favorite songs to come out last year.)
2. monks (that bass line is way too killer.)
3. sweet life (easily could’ve been off “songs in the key of life”)
honorable mention: crack rock, super rich kids, pink matter, bad religion, thinkin bout you

rating: 5/5

Blunderbuss

2. jack white – blunderbuss

solo jack – meg who?
folksy here and rockin there
jack can do no wrong.

favorite tracks:
1. weep themselves to sleep (the piano here is way too good to ignore. easy favorite.)
2. love interruption (painful in moments. brilliantly harsh. plus ruby from the sing off does the harmonies, so that’s neat.)
3. freedom at 21 (classic jack white – crazy and awesome. destroyed everything at the grammys with this song.)
honorable mention: sixteen saltines, take me with you when you go, hypocritical kiss,

rating: 3.5/5

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3. bruno mars – unorthodox jukebox

zero cohesion
way too many producers
mraz wants his hat back

favorite tracks – only tracks i like:
1. natalie (one of the two massive bright spots on this album. on constant repeat.)
2. treasure (the other bright spot. there’s something quicey jones-seque about the chorus here. love it)
3. money make her smile (okay so i lied. this song is pretty rad too.)
honorable mention: locked out of heaven (only because it’s mark ronson produced. it’s a distant third. like a police song only not as good.)

rating: 2/5

there you go. i can’t recommend channel orange enough. it might be my favorite album from last year (although, i doubt it would make the top 3 in 2013). absolutely preposterous that it lost out to mumford & sons for album of the year. blunderbuss is great too, but it’s not revolutionary. jack white is always awesome. unlike bruno mars, who is rarely awesome, but usually dumb.

-apc.

hindsight will be 20/20 album review – part 2.

note: on monday i posted part 1 of this blog with some backstory and my factors for making these choices. i encourage you to read it first.
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justin timberlake’s newest album, The 20/20 Experience, drops in a little over a month, but he has released the album art and track list already via twitter. so i thought it might be fun to create a pre-release album review based on zero knowledge of what the songs sound like, but educated guesses from these criteria…

1. track title
2. track list history of justified and future sex/love sounds
3. justin’s personal life
4. the single – “suit & tie”
5. two performances: he performed three songs (“suit & tie”, “pusher love girl” and “that girl”) at a super bowl show in new orleans last weekend. and his performance of “suit & tie” and “pusher love girl” at the grammys last night.

…so read this loud and clear: this is based on hunches and hopes and history. that’s it. here’s what his tracklist looks like:

1. Pusher Love Girl – on Justified, JT launched with one of my all-time favorites of his in Señorita. the FSLS opener was the album title track and felt like it served more as an introduction than it does an actual track. so this one would be pretty tough to target if it hadn’t just been performed at the grammys on sunday night. the live version was terrific, but something tells me the album version will be a lead-off homer. Favorite Odds: 6-1

2. Suit & Tie (feat. Jay-Z) – hmmmm. where do you project the pace horse? the single is great. the more i listen to it, the more i love it. the Jay-Z verse isn’t phenomenal, but that background has me bumping around like crazy. I certainly hope this is not the best track on the album – typically the single comes in third or fourth place in my mind. so i’ll project it there. Favorite Odds: 7-1

3. Don’t Hold the Wall – count on this: this track will be one of the worst on the album. why? because the three spot is just not justin timberlake’s baby. the initial reasoning is obvious: Sexy Ladies and (Oh No) What You Got – off of FSLS and Justified respectively – are two of the weakest tracks on both albums. but dug a little deeper, and you’ll discover something very very interesting…on all three of *NSYNC’s studio albums, Justin makes a strong appearance on tracks 1, 2 and 4, while track 3 is always a JC Chasez lead track. seriously. take a look at the track lists of Celebrity, No Strings Attached, and *NSYNC, and look for yourself! all that to say, the 3-spot has 16 year history of stinking. don’t expect that to change. Favorite Odds: 30-1

4. Strawberry Bubblegum – eww sickening. the word “bubblegum” is an immediate vomit-inducer for me ever since john mayer utilized the “bubblegum tongue” lyric in Your Body is a Wonderland. however, word aversions aside, it’s batting clean-up so it can’t be all bad. here’s to hoping JT can turn the aversion around. i’m confident, but not THAT confident. Favorite Odds: 10-1

5. Tunnel Vision – with the album title being eyesight related, that makes this track the only on-theme song on the entire record. couple that with the fact that it’s in the historically potent 5-spot (cry me a river & lovestoned), then you’ve got yourself a recipe for success brewing. Favorite Odds: 3-1

6. Spaceship Coupe – this is certainly the dark horse. the six spot holds some power (see: rock your body, what goes around…), but this title is like me going to the k-state/ku game in lawrence last night – high probability that it’s going to blow, but there’s an infinite ceiling if it’s a winner. also the addition blaster noises, robotic voices or melodic beep-boops will exponentially increase this song’s odds. Favorite Odds: 18-1

7. That Girl – this song is at minimum performance-ready, as it was one of three songs played at his new orleans show last weekend. that makes it a little more promising than usual, but its title and placement is very reminiscent of “damn girl” off FSLS. underwhelming. Favorite Odds: 15-1

8. Let the Groove Get In – the latter tracks are a bit of a mystery in terms of content usually, but make no mistake about this one: it’s got slow jam written all over it. turn down the metronome and dim the lights; this one has minimal shot at being my favorite, but will certainly land in the top half of the album. Favorite Odds: 8-1

9. Mirrors – this feels like a massive question mark. as mentioned on “let the groove get in”, the latter tracks are more of a mystery, and these placements always make me wonder if artists are trying to hide a weaker track here. Mirrors is a cool enough title, but i have no reason to give this song any real possibility. Favorite Odds: 23-1

10. Blue Ocean Floor – is this the third and final installment of “never again” and “all over again”? the placement at the end of the album leads us to believe it will be another outro with JT crooning at the piano. but the last two are certainly of the “you broke my heart” genre, and his new life as a Mr. Mary Camden could really toss a wrench in that trend. My bet: stylistically similar, but the content is drastically different. it’ll be beautiful, but not a favorite. Favorite Odds: 20-1

welp. that’s the tracklist and my odds on the potential winners and losers in the field. if you rank my ten in order of the odds i gave them you get…

5. Tunnel Vision (3-1)
1. Pusher Love Girl (6-1)
2. Suit & Tie (7-1)
8. Let the Groove Get In (8-1)
4. Strawberry Bubblegum (10-1)
7. That Girl (15-1)
6. Spaceship Coupe (18-1)
10. Blue Ocean Floor (20-1)
9. Mirrors (23-1)
3. Don’t Hold the Wall (30-1)

comments? criticisms? concerns? tharts?

the album drops in a little over a month, so you’ve got plenty of time to disagree and create your own pre-release favorites list. give it a shot. i dare you to do better.

-apc.

hindsight will be 20/20 album review – part 1.

before i get into this, i have to acknowledge last night’s performance. JT absolutely killed it. i was maybe most shocked to see him own the stage so strongly alongside Jay-Z – who, btw, appeared bored and above the majority of last night’s proceedings. this blog isn’t about all that, but i have to at least mention it here. moving on.

o-20-20-EXPERIENCE-TRACKLIST-570

SEVEN YEARS AGO – sometimes i like to think about this question: if you could only listen to music from one 18-month stretch, which would you choose? without doing any thinking or research, my initial answer is mid-2005 through late-2006. a short list why…

– future sex/love sounds, justin timberlake
– game theory, the roots
– late registration, kanye west
– kingdom come, jay-z
– back to black, amy winehouse
– demon days, gorillaz
– st. elsewhere, gnarls barkley

…however, none of these received as much hype in my life as the first one: justin timberlake’s future sex/love sounds. i was first in “line” to pick it up in manhattan the day it dropped. skipping my 9:05am tuesday class, i arrived at besy buy at 8:45am. sat in the car until 8:58, then got out and walked up to the door hoping an employee would see my anxious pacing, but they didn’t unlock them until 9:02. i was rather bothered by this because i was losing significant album digesting time. little did i know it would be seven blasted years before i got to experience another JT album.

so when the fanfare surrounding The 20/20 Experience began, i freaked. and when the release date was mentioned as 3/19/13, i freaked again. and when he released the track list last week, i freaked again. and then last night when he took the stage at the grammys, i freaked again.

within a month of picking up Future Sex/Love Sounds, i felt that i had enough of a grasp to put together a track-by-track blog on the album: you can read that here. i was young and silly back then. chances are, i’ll look back on this blog and find it young and silly someday too.

this year’s track-by-track blog will come a month BEFORE the album drops rather than after. what follows is a review based on five pieces of knowledge…

1. track title
2. track list history of justified and future sex/love sounds
3. justin’s personal life
4. the single – “suit & tie”
5. two performances: he performed three songs (“suit & tie”, “pusher love girl” and “that girl”) at a super bowl show in new orleans last weekend. and his performance of “suit & tie” and “pusher love girl” at the grammys last night.

these five bits of information will be what informs my upcoming “hindsight will be 20/20 review” which i will post later this week. in it, i will rank my favorite songs from 1-10 based purely on those five factors and give you my reasoning for each. maybe i’ll totally whiff on a major hit and expect a favorite when it’s a total bust. we’ll see. could be fun.

i encourage you to do it too. read the track names, and rank them based on what order you think you’ll love them in. it will feel like picking a racehorse for the kentucky derby, but i think it could be super fun to compare pre- and post- release lists.

for now, i leave you with JT’s handwritten tracklist he tweeted last week:
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that’s it for now. check back in a couple days for my list.

-apc.

four haiku reviews.

every year, september is a heavy music month. there’s probably some scientific formula that someone figured out in regards to releasing an album in september and its correlation with the album’s success…like the alignment of life, finances and award shows.

all that to say, i’ve picked up 4 albums in the last month – 3 of them released in the last 2 weeks. i don’t have the time to do full reviews on them, but i will do the following:
1. a haiku review
2. my three favorite songs (with a brief reason)
3. rating out of 5

here we go.

ben folds five
the sound of the life of the mind

release date: september 18

haiku review:
whether he’s solo
or reuniting with Five,
ben can do no wrong.

favorite tracks:
1. erase me (i love it when they cuss)
2. draw a crowd (childish? or absolute genius?)
3. the sound of the life of the mind (very reminiscent of old school bff)

rating: 5/5

kanye west presents…
g.o.o.d. music cruel summer

release date: september 14

haiku review:
who are these artists?
lame. save for a few moments.
still miss vintage ‘ye.

favorite tracks:
1. mercy (kick drum at 3:15 might just save the entire album)
2. to the world (good, but i can’t take r kelly seriously after “trapped in the closet”.)
3. bliss (i had to pick another song to round out the top 3…the eagle cry sold me here.)

rating: 2/5

justin bieber – believe
release date: june 15

haiku review:
a quick prediction:
justin is the next justin.
haters gonna hate

favorite tracks:
1. boyfriend (so say hello to falsetto in 3…2…)
2. take you (get me on the dance floor. i can’t handle it.)
3. maria (distorted matt lauer interview?! amazing.)

rating: 4/5

lupe fiasco
food and liquor II: the great american rap album

released: september 25

haiku review:
lupe means business,
like ‘lasers’ never happened
welcome back, prophet.

favorite tracks:
1. around my way (cause freedom ain’t free, especially ’round my way.)
2. battle scars (a hurting love song from lupe? surprising.)
3. audubon ballroom (lupe drops his two cents on the n-word.)

rating: 4.5/5

shuffle lessons, vol 2.

in november of last year, my friend jon dropped “shuffle lessons, volume 1” over on his blog. while i’m not the iTunes freakazoid (chimpanzee) that he is, i try really hard to maintain a solid library myself.

the whole idea is this: put iTunes on random and write a little bit about the first handful of songs that come up. jon pulled from his “top 1000” playlist, but i’m just pulling from my entire library…makes the element of surprise that much greater. my goals are three-fold:

– first, i hope to reminisce a bit on some songs i never listen to anymore.
– second, i hope to connect with you all randomly on a new level of music appreciation.
– third, i hope this inspires jon to drop volume 3 sometime.*

* – disclaimer: I do not necessarily have jon’s permission to swipe shuffle lessons…let alone claim volume 2 to be my own and apart of the series. i hope he looks upon this blog with favor.

that said – lets see what happens here…

20120818-014842.jpga new hope – five iron frenzy – all the hype money can buy
consider goal number one to be complete. i haven’t listened to this album in way too long. probably 6 years. five iron used to be my jam. i still break out “our newest album ever” on occasion – I always thought that was their strongest LP – but “all the hype” never got nearly enough playing time. not sure why – what other albums landed in 2000 that it was competing with…

this track, a new hope, is a response to the columbine high school shooting I think. five iron frenzy is a band from the columbine area, so the shooting there sort of framed a lot of their lyrics and their theology. some of the tougher lyrics to get around: did the halls smell of gunpowder still/what made the human mind dark enough to kill?…we all saw it on that day/stunned we stood stuttering/ what did the news say?

rumor has it that five iron is recording some new material – and again their home was hit with tragedy with the movie theater shooting during the “dark knight rises” premiere last month. would be shocked if there wasn’t a response on one of the later tracks similar to this one.

in somewhat related news, the theme of the middle school retreat I am leading next month is “the greatest story ever told” – which is the title of track 1 off this album.

20120818-014852.jpgre: definition – black star – black star
the first thing I think of when i hear any track from black star is “dave chappelle’s block party”. i knew who mos def was, and I knew talib kweli from his verse in kanye’s “get em high” and his mention in jay-z’s “moment of clarity” (if skills sold/truth be told/I’d probably be/lyrically/talib kweli), but I didn’t know of their duo “black star” until I saw DCBP. they perform this song early in the movie, and i think I had downloaded the whole album off limewire by the time the movie ended.

mos def is hilarious, and kweli is absolutely ridiculously good. how does he do it? he and twista should compete in some lyrical exercises sometime and put it on youtube. heck, sell tickets. i’d go.

speaking of, I remember when kweli was coming to kstate my senior year, but he got arrested after arriving in manhattan for possession of marijuana. he had to cancel his show and i didn’t find out until I was walking to the union and the rest of campus was deserted. I remember i looked up the situation on my red Palm Centro (which, fun fact, is the same phone Lily has in “how I met your mother”!). so I never got to see him. sigh. oh well.

20120818-014902.jpgfeel good inc (stanton warrior remix) – gorillaz – d-sides: remixes [disc 2]
one of the most remixable tracks ever created. it’s mash-ups on the dj hero soundtrack are some of my favorites: feel good inc/hollaback girl, feel good inc/heard it through the grapevine, feel good inc/ atomic. this track is alright I guess. not as strong as some other remixes I’ve heard – or as strong as the original for that matter – but it’s ooookay.

here’s the thing about mashups: they need to fill one of the following qualifications in order to be a success…
1. they make at least one of the two songs better – it’s like drinking a jack and coke…why would I ever want to ruin either of those beverages by combining them unless it makes a creation better than one of the the originals.
2. they isolate a unique part of the song that you wouldn’t expect – you can’t just lay the chorus of one song over the back beat of the other song and expect it to be a smash. you have to isolate some details that are easily missed in the originals and highlight them in a new way that makes it special.
3. they somehow combine the two so that you don’t miss the original – a good mashup is able to distinguish itself from the original in a way that makes the original forgettable in the moment. an even better mashup manages to replace the original, so that when you go back to the original you actually miss the elements of the other track. examples of this: feel good inc/heard it through the grapevine of the dj hero soundtrack, selected tracks from danger mouse’s “gray album”, kanye’s “say you will” and dido’s “here with me”…course both of those songs are pretty boring to begin with so it was easy to improve on.

this track does none of those things, so i can’t give it a thumbs up. odd that the gorillaz gave it the thumbs up to go on their “d-sides remixes” album.

20120818-014908.jpgi want you – savage garden – savage gardens
aka the “chicka-cherry-cola song”. two things I remember about this song/album…

1. I remember being in elementary school and sitting at the neighborhood pool trying to memorize all the words to this song when it would come on Z95.7 (now called “the vibe”…dumb). I used to get really tripped up on the “magenta” line in the first verse, and I get lost throughout the second verse until he says “deep sea diver” and then I’m back on course.

2. I remember one Christmas with all my cousins and we all got a different CD. mine was DC Talk, “Nu Thang” and I was ecstatic. I already had “free at last”, “jesus freak” and “dctalk”, so that completed the discography to that point. but then one of my cousins opened up this album and I remember being so jealous because I had spent the entire summer prior trying to learn the words and that was my golden opportunity to learn them all and it was given to my rival cousin instead. ugh.

20120818-014921.jpgisland girl – elton john – rock of the westies
love me some elton john – key word “some” – but certainly not all. this is maybe the worst ever. it’s is absolutely mind-blowing that this song made it to #1 on the US Billboard in 1975. I mean, c’mon, you’re telling me that in ’75 this song has more weeks at number one than the eagles “one of these nights”, kc and the sunshine band’s “that’s the way (I like it)”, and earth wind & fire’s “shining star”?!?! that’s just embarrassing. c’mon 1975…what were you thinking?

and don’t get me started on the subject matter. this “island girl” that elton is singing about is, according to the lyrics, a big girl/standing six-foot-three/turning tricks for dudes in the big city. awesome, so despite the jovial carribbean sound to the song, the “island” is manhattan, ny, and the “girl” is a prostitute. and a rather gargantuan prostitute at that. in fact, one might even wonder if this “girl” is actually a “girl” at all considering elton’s sexuality and the culture surrounding homosexuality in the 70s.

and here’s a fun little ditty: she wraps herself around you like a well worn tire/you feel her nail scratch your back just like a rake. what a wonderful image, elton. as bad as “daniel” and “nikita” and “little jeannie” are, “island girl” wins the prize for the worst track ever recorded by sir elton.

…well. there you go. the first five songs that came up on random on my iTunes, and those are my thoughts about each one. now please, leave your thoughts on one or all of them and maybe we can reach goal two together.

-apc.

amy winehouse.


i was introduced to amy winehouse’s music about 4 years ago, shortly after she released Back to Black in late 2006. at the grammy’s the following year, she took home five awards – best pop vocal album, song of the year (rehab), best female pop performance (also rehab), record of the year as well as best new artist. that was easily enough to pique my interest (even though, at the time, i was ticked that she beat out justin timberlake in a couple of those catagories).

Back to Black is one of my all time favorite records now. soulful and gritty, yet upbeat and polished. produced by mark ronson, it features that oldies/60’s vibe that amy embraced and nailed better than anyone i’ve heard to date. i quickly sought out her first studio album, Frank, and loved it too.

I first heard that amy had passed away while i was on vacation with my wife in Europe. we had spent a week in London, exploring the entire city (including Amy’s home neighborhood of Camden Town, and the previous morning we had left for southern Spain. our second night there we got locked out on our patio at our condo and ended up having to holler up for help to the English couple hanging out on the balcony above us. in our conversation, the man – Roger was his name – asked down to us, “hey, are you all music fans?”

thinking that he was simply interested in enhancing our locked out experience with some tunes, i hollered up, “absolutely!” and he responds with, “do you guys listen to amy winehouse?” i responded, “absolutely! that’s awesome! put her on!” he replied, “she’s just died actually.”

now, i don’t know amy winehouse personally. in fact, i know very little about her actual life outside of her music and the persona she adopts in her songs. however, i would venture to guess she is one of the more honest musical artists of the last decade. when she sings about drinking and doing drugs, going to rehab, fighting the darkness of depression, falling sadly in and out of love, i believe her. so when i first heard that she had died, i wasn’t shocked. i don’t think any of us were shocked.

that was initially what was so sad about amy’s death – we really weren’t that shocked. it didn’t hit us hard in the face (unlike steve jobs’s death may have) because it was somewhat expected. the life she was living was always going to end that way…as sad as it is to say that. that was the real tragedy – not that a 27-year old woman had passed way too early, but because we weren’t surprised by the news.

but over the last few monthas, as i have reflected on her short career, i’m finding myself deeply saddened by it. sure, a lot of my sadness is strictly selfish; as a consumer of her music, i am really distraught that i won’t have the opportunity to digest her material anymore. she had just won 5 grammys 3 years earlier and was riding a steep track up the music success ladder. to know that she won’t ever get to put together a “junior” album is a real shame.

selfishness aside, i’m still plagued by a sadness that i didn’t expect. i think about the ultra-talented 20-somethings that i am close to – whether that talent be musically, artistically, relationally, athletically, whatever – and i start to realize what a tragedy this loss truly is. the world lost a truly talented individual; one who had already contributed something beautiful to society, but – in the chaotic and confusing world we live in – had her life cut short.

i wonder where amy’s soul is today. i sure hope she is in Heaven, but i really don’t know. it’s not my place to know. it’s not my place to judge her lifestyle and bestow salvation or not. all i know is that amy winehouse would make a terrific angel, and if God has no timeline and if it’s not too late to put in a good word – i pray she is with Jesus now.

-apc.

watch the throne.

when jay-z creates something new – i freak out.

when kanye creates something new – i freak out more.

when they collaborate and create an entire album together – i can’t help but get super hyped about the potential the two of these power hitters could produce. these two really are “The Throne” of hip-hop: the kings of the genre who are worshiped by those who digest their tunes. cocky? sure, but as Justin Timberlake puts it, “is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?”* do i blame them for their collab title? no way. however, with great power comes great responsibility, and i’m not sure these two have fully grasped their roles as the kings of hip-hop quite as positively as they could. this album is strong – there’s no arguing that – but overall the content leaves me underwhelmed. however, there are bits and pieces of them moving in a mature direction.

let’s start by discussing their single “Otis” because that’s where they decided to start publicly. kanye is known for his samples, and the Otis Redding clip from “Try a Little Tenderness” is probably his most impressive sample usage since he released Graduation in 2007. it is catchy and creative, but it also adds the historical musical element which kanye is so intentional about. the song is enjoyable, but allow me to poke some holes in it.

first, there’s no chorus. no chorus?! no chorus. the sample loops and loops and loops as jay and ‘ye go back and forth battling rhymes. i nod my head and can’t help but “conducting” some of the lyrics with my hand a bit, but the lyrics are the second issue i have. the lyrical battle has one theme: how abundantly wealthy their lives are. i understand that bragging about wealth is one of the common themes in the hip-hop business. its important for artists to convey that they came out of poverty and that today they are wildly successful. i get that. it adds to the ghetto anthem. but this is kanye and jay-z we’re talking about here. we’ve heard it. we get it. you are already successful and you already have the world. you’re the kings of hip-hop and you don’t need to rub it in our faces or beat the dead horse. here’s what i wish: that “The Throne” would grab their responsibility by the horns and move on from the “last week i was in my other other Benz” and “smoking cubanos with Castro in cabannas” business. you have a massive platform to preach to the masses, and you’re re-introducing the same outrageous themes.

the saving track on this album is “New Day” in which they both address their future unborn sons. essentially they lay out all that they wish they’d done differently in their careers and talk about how they hope they can raise their sons to avoid the heartache they’ve gone through. kanye mentions his ego, breaking up with his college girlfriend, and even his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment on the red cross telethon. it’s a look into his life that we’ve rarely been given. we all know he’s got an ego and that he’s pretty self conscious, but to hear him admit it on a track and hope to raise his son differently is a strong step for him.

in light of the news we all got at the VMAs last weekend regarding Beyonce’s pregnancy**, suddenly Hov’s lyrics feel real already. the world is expecting great things from Jay-Jr. and he/she is going to be forced to live in the shadow of Beyonce and Jay-Z. jay’s opening line: “sorry junior, i already ruined ya. cause you ain’t even alive and paparazzi pursuing ya.” while kanye talks about his regrets, jay-z talks more about how he strives to give his child a better life than he was given – “my dad left me and i promised to never repeat him.” it’s touching and it’s what i wish there was more of in this album. i suppose i should give them the benefit of the doubt: these elements i desire are at least present in small doses. perhaps they just need a time of transition to really own their fame and the responsibility that goes with it.

a few other interesting thoughts here…it’s interesting to see how they collaborated. it’s extremely evident that jay-z is a substantially better rapper – in fact, there are moments where kanye’s lines are a bit embarrassing. however, on the other side of the coin, the lines that jay-z raps are suddenly that much more potent because of the disparity with kanye’s. there are moments where i find myself excited for Hov’s verses – it’s like he’s being featured on certain tracks because the album isn’t overrun with only one voice throughout. and it’s not that kanye is bad – he certainly has his moments too. besides, the samples and the beats are certainly kanye-influenced and that’s where he pulls his Throne’s weight. its his production that got him to where he is.

it’s fun to just have them together too – hearing Hova mention “louis vuitton slippers” and to hear kanye quote “Lucifer” (a kanye-produced track off jay-z’s Black Album) with the line “i’m from the murder capitol where they murder for capital”. and to think about what their thought process had to be when deciding who did what verse and who got the best lines. i’m sure it was a power struggle, but i’m also sure that they pushed each other to create something stronger than they could do on their own.

also, the other artists are all voices – not other rappers as is the custom – but singers/crooners who add to the overall vibe of the album. frank ocean, mr. hudson, and curtis mayfield are all singers (also beyonce pulls the chorus on a track called “Lift Off”, but i hate it and don’t really want to talk about it). the album is less of a dance album and more of a casual listening album. some individuals are miffed by this. they want vintage bumpin club tracks, and while there are bits and pieces, it is certainly not an album i’ll be breaking out at future dance parties/wedding receptions.

in the end, i’m a fan of this album. wouldn’t say i love it, but it’s sound is strong. its lyrics are hit or miss for me, there are little twinges towards what i want from them, but overall they maintain their Benz and champagne glossed lines. and let’s be totally honest – any time these two can work together is a plus for the hip-hop and music world.

-apc.

* – from the track “Sexy Ladies” off Justin Timberlake’s 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds…which, in my humble, yet correct, opinion, was the 3rd best album released in 2006 after Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and John Mayer’s Continuum.

** – which, btw, kanye appears more excited then jay-z about the news, and supposedly is hoping to be the kid’s godfather.

easter hymn: the roots – “walk alone”

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had the opportunity to write a guest post over at my friend christian’s blog, justbeingchristian.com. he has been writing a series of posts titled “easter hymns” – telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection through hip-hop tunes. i’ve really enjoyed them, so i am pretty honored to get to contribute to them. mine is the fourth post in the series.

check out my post here: the roots – “walk alone”

check out the previous three installments here:
kanye west – “Jesus walks”
T.I. – “dead and gone”
common – “a dream”

thanks to doubledizz for the writing opp.

-apc.