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.

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