Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 Honorable Mentions

Over the course of this year, my monthly roundups have evolved into those of an almost “normal” blogger. My usual modus operandi is to write about music, framing reviews on personal experience.  For me, however, everyday experience is interwoven with music, so in my book, periodically taking some space to jot down some generalized thoughts from the month to go along with the playlist doesn’t seem too out of bounds. Reader response has been pretty positive on these posts, though, so I assume that most of my readers don’t mind the indulgence too much.  In truth, the blog's success over the course of this year has exceeded my expectations.  Thanks for that.

Like the last few years, this one has been one of big changes.  For the curious, the high points are mostly recounted in these monthly entries (they should all be labeled).  At this time last year, some of those changes I probably could have predicted while others I certainly could not.  While I am not one to invest too strongly on New Year's resolutions, I do have some goals for 2013.  You will have to stay tuned for the details as they unfold. 

Although I am quite satisfied with the results from this year’s top twenty, there are, as last year, a few albums that got edged out. I came across a lot of great music this year, so I had to split hairs on some pretty trivial stuff. All of these albums are great, though, and deserve some recognition. They are, in no particular order:

 Steven WilsonGrace for Drowning: Although Wilson intended for this album to be digested in two separate parts, it works best as a whole, but as a whole, it’s a little too long. I cannot, however, in any way overstate his incredible genius.

The RootsUndun: I have documented elsewhere my love for this album as well as the difficult decision I had in leaving it off the “best of” list. More than almost any other honorable mention, Undun is one of the best albums I have heard this year.

GrimesVisions: I don’t think that it is too much to say that Claire Boucher is the herald of new generation of indie/pop artist. Her debut as Grimes is excellent, if marred slightly by some unfocused moments.

Sigur RosValtari: Sigur Ros is one of my all-time favorites, so this was a tough one. Valtari has some classic moments on it, but also has some ambient wandering that bumped it off the list.

Beach HouseBloom: There is a lot there to like on Bloom, and I enjoy listening to it when I put it on.  It has a very annoying “hidden track” at its end, however, that I just have to take a stand on. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

P.O.S. "We Don't Even Live Here" and the Struggle for #20

Although I was not keeping close track of my favorite albums a couple of years ago, I feel pretty confident in saying that Never Better from P.O.S. was my album of the year from 2009. That was a time of incredible flux for me, when I was trying to make life decisions that I knew would have far-reaching effects.  I found the realistic themes of Never Better to be particularly uplifting as I sorted through them all.  I owe P.O.S. for providing some refuge during that time, so I really wanted to give We Don’t Even Live Here a fair shake.

But its late October release date posed a problem. Year-end lists are a fun way to look back, but in reality, it’s hard to give an album that has stood the test of time since February the same kind of attention that I give to that which is immediately in the player. Late fall releases are easily overrepresented because they are novel or, conversely, slip through the cracks, not to reemerge until sometime in spring.  I find I'm forced to be more cautiously objective than usual.

Which is kinda silly, really.  After all, New Year's is just another tick of the clock, right?

Anyhow, even after the release of We Don’t Even Live Here, I had intended for The Roots’ brilliant concept piece Undun to kick off this year’s Top Twenty list just to show how great my year in music has been. Both of these albums are incredibly creative hip-hop offerings, but their artistic success comes from different angles. I still genuinely love and respect the maturity and overall statement of Undun, but We Don’t Even Live Here crosses boundaries between electronica, rock, and hip-hop with an adventurous, organic flair that I just couldn't ignore. What other hip-hop artist out there is releasing live videos with two drummers and a synth hook that could put Miike Snow out of business?

There is, however, an unfortunate, nagging feeling that We Don’t Even Live Here isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, which kept it in the lower half of the list.  It seems that P.O.S. made an effort to consolidate the eclecticism from Never Better into something more succinct and perhaps widely accessible. This is understandable and perhaps respectable, but in my opinion, Never Better benefited from its broad variety. While P.O.S. has not compromised his sincere, anarchistic, and often thought-provoking stance, We Don’t Even Live Here doesn't seem as instrumentally broad as its antecedent. It is, however, musically stronger than virtually all of the hip-hop I hear (Death Grips notwithstanding).

What I don’t want to do is get into a Soft Bulletin/War of the Mystics standstill with We Don't Even Live Here, which is conceivable since Never Better was such an influential favorite for me in 2009. Even at the cost of Undun, I feel pretty justified in including P.O.S. in the top twenty. For one thing, The Roots enjoy a pretty high profile right now, while P.O.S. remains a relatively underground innovator. I feel that it is my responsibility to advocate for him if for no other reason than to widen his visibility. Don’t misunderstand, though - my rationalization for putting We Don’t Even Live Here in the top twenty doesn't come from a sense of obligation.  It stems from the strength of the album’s fierce musicality and playfully anarchistic ideology. It is a great hip-hop album that really has only one major fault – it follows what is for me a phenomenal classic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dr. Spin's Best Albums of the Year: 2012 Edition

I admit to having something of a sugar addiction. Although I can generally manage on a regular basis, the holiday season is a bit more difficult to navigate. In addition, this year I have been trying to shield my daughter from the onslaught of refined sugar as it makes the rounds  My grandmother, however, her great-grandmother, has a more insidious agenda.

I have noticed that when we eat as an extended family, she often exerts a not-so-subtle pressure to make sure that the Little One gets more than her share of desert when it is available. Ween has always shown her love through food, so I get that she is being affectionate in her own way, but sometimes I feel like my efforts to build my daughter out of wholesome foods are ignored.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, my extended family went to a Christmas shopping event at Dillard’s. Several employees were making rounds with hors d’oeuvres plates, one of which was piled high with cookies. Cookies, in particular, are something of a “gateway sweet” for me, and I had been doing a pretty good job of dodging that particular server. Towards the end of the evening, however, my resolve began to wear down and when I was cornered, I decided one cookie wouldn’t destroy my efforts to stay fit.

My grandmother, however, was with me, and her craftiness knows no bounds. She picked one out for herself, but she was also very concerned that the Little One would miss out, so she also grabbed a second one for her. I really didn’t want my daughter to eat a whole cookie at 9 pm, but it wasn’t up for debate. My grandmother proceeded to break off chunks, gleefully watching them disappear into my daughter’s delighted face.

Disgruntled, I took over. I did not want to put a damper on my grandmother, but a whole cookie seemed like just too much.  I started to sneak bites to minimize the damage. When it was gone, my grandmother offered me the other half of hers.  I was in the throes of the insulin rush by this time, so I could hardly turn it down.  In the end, I had inadvertently more than doubled my cookie input.  My grandmother had gotten both of us!

I’m still not convinced that this wasn’t her master plan in the first place.

Anyhow, you are probably not here to read a cautionary tounge-in-cheek tale about my dietary downward spiral - at least not entirely.  You're here for the top ten!  Looking back on last year's list, I think that this year is a bit more honest representation of my listening habits.  To me, these albums represent the experiences and changes in 2012.  Plus, its some dang good music that, in some cases, you might not have heard of elsewhere.

10. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless: After several years in an irregular orbit, this album finally clicked for me. It’s actually a beautiful, emotionally charged album that changed the way I listen to a lot of contemporary music.

9. Oneohtrix Point NeverReplica: It doesn’t make sense that Replica is as musically affective as it is. However, its choppy, post-apocalyptic atmospheres capture an alienated sentimentalism that kept it in rotation all year long.

8. The Mars VoltaNoctourniquet: While the choice might be confusing to the public, I would love to see some brave contestant sing a song from this album on The Voice. If they were able to capture the arresting melodicism with the same intensity as Cedric, it could really bring the house down.

7. Grizzly BearShields: Shields is a bit of a late entry to be placed so high on the list, but I have increasingly found myself drawn into its orbit. It serves nearly all purposes: it is singable, textured, intelligent, artistic, and vibrantly executed.

6. Astra - The Black Chord: Sure, this is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but Astra is so good at what they do that I really don’t feel that guilty. They miraculously reinvent the progressive and psychedelic sounds of the 70s without directly copying any one group.

 5. Now, NowThreads: Great songwriting and energetic performances underpin this album. Threads is a hard one to take out of the player.

4. Anais MitchellHadestown: Mitchell’s folk opera epitomizes layered meaning. No matter how many times I listen to it, I feel like there is more to appreciate.

3. Field MusicPlumb: This album seems to bend the laws of space in time. Its short running length belies its incredible depth, which surpasses that of many longer, more involved librettos.

2. Death Grips - The Money Store: Not since Rage Against the Machine has an album navigated the extremes of fury and intelligence so effectively. In a side-by-side comparison, The Money Store has made many other albums from this year sound kind of dumb.

1. Rush - Clockwork Angels: If you have followed the blog at all, this is a no-brainer. Despite my adoration of all things Rush, I believe that is nothing short of phenomenal that this band is able to release such a strong, viable record at this phase of their career.

If you missed the first half, you should check it out here.

Thanks to everyone who reads the blog, especially those who have made suggestions. Keep reading and let me know that you are out there!  More to come soon.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brubeck's "Time Out:" Acadacemicizing Jazz

This month, the world lost two incredible and historically important musicians. Doubtlessly, I have nothing but love and respect for the music and life of Ravi Shankar, but Dave Brubeck was an important personal influence. By extension, Brubeck influenced virtually every student to whom I have had the pleasure of teaching jazz.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s unlikely hit Take 5 (written by saxophonist Paul Desmond) from their 1959 album Time Out is a rare beast in the jazz realm. Its infectious melody, which effortlessly flowed over a seemingly un-swingable time signature, allowed the tune to cross over into mainstream popularity. Hiding complexity within accessibility is a surefire way for a song to earn my adoration, so Take 5 had huge appeal.

Dave Wolpe’s big band arrangement of this standard became a regular presence in my jazz pedagogy for years. Of course, putting it in the set list meant that I had to teach drummers to swing in 5/4, which was a long-term goal often wrought with frustration. Almost always, however, the song’s appeal won out. In retrospect, Take 5 doesn’t remind me of specific students I have taught as much as the whole experience of teaching big band to high schoolers for over a decade.

Looking back on that experience, I see now that in my early years I taught the song with a relatively superficial understanding. When I added Time Out to my jazz collection for the sake of study, I gained a much deeper appreciation for the song and the statement it was trying to make. As a whole, the album a historical step towards academicizing jazz. Jazz's improvisational conventions were developed in the loosely structured jams of the after-hours Dixieland and dance bands. The angular, through-composed, odd-timed experiments of Time Out would most likely not be found popping up at 3am in a New Orleans club. The harmonic structures of the pieces, however, along with the melodic vocabulary of their improvisational aspects, certainly place the album firmly within the jazz tradition.

Take 5 was the initial hook for me, but when I listened to the album in full, I became fascinated by many of the songs, not the least of which was the album’s Turkish-inspired opener Blue Rondo a la Turk. Calvin Custer released a big band arrangement of this tune and I added its kaleidoscopic duple and triple rhythmic structure to my 4 year pedagogic cycle. This one also became a band favorite.

Brubeck stood at the nexus of a variety of cultural forces. As a white musician applying intellectual and multicultral concepts to an African-American art form forged in practical settings, it seems like another example of dominant cultural ideology appropriating a subcultural style for profit. I think that there were certainly cases in the history of jazz where this happened, which was a justifiable source of racial tension. There were also many white musicians, however, that had the utmost respect for jazz tradition, and their interest in contributing to that tradition was generated by a genuine love of the style. Dave Brubeck, I think, fell into this category.

Since I have been teaching middle school, I have not had the regular opportunity to teach high concept songs like the ones found on Time Out. For young jazz musicians, learning to hold a blues form is difficult enough without having to deal with weird time signatures. Right before Brubeck's passing, however, my piano player, without any prompting from me, sat down at his piano and knocked out Take Five’s familiar rhythmic introduction. Inspiring - now to start in on that drummer…..

Monday, December 10, 2012

"The Money Store" and Death Grips' Caustic Veneer

For the majority of 2012, there has been an indie buzz surrounding Death Grips, but it wasn’t until the recent surreptitious release of their third album No Love Deep Web that I took notice. I say surreptitious because this album was not printed on a CD, nor was its tracklist available on ITunes. It was, in actuality, to be postponed by their record company and released next year. Death Grips, however, had been promising their growing fanbase that the album would be released in 2012, so in response, they simply posted the entire album to the web (with a rather shocking album cover, I might add) without the consent of their record company. There were subsequent heated exchanges between the two entities, most of which the band made public, and in the end, their unapologetic act of defiance against the conventions of commodity got them dropped.

It seemed to me that record deals are hard to come by these days, and any group that was making that kind of sacrifice for their artistic integrity deserved at least more than a cursory glance. I wanted to take them seriously, though, and that would require hardcopy. Rather than download and burn No Love Deep Web (which I secretly hope will see CD release), I went on a search for their “other” 2012 album, The Money Store. As it turns out, it is incredibly compelling album that lays at the junctures of so many genres that it feels like something completely new.

A quick glance at Wikipedia describes Death Grips as an “experimental hip-hop group,” and in a broad sense, this is true. It goes on to say that the band consists of vocalist Stefan "MC Ride" Burnett with production team Zach Hill and Andy "Flatlander" Morin. This is also valid, but I think that the description pushes Hill's production skills to the forefront and suggests that his drumming skills are secondary. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Hill's production skills are formidable, his drumming is nothing short of phenomenal, which is plain to see when he performs live.

The potentials of electronic drumming often makes his work sound more like production craft, but a close examination of The Money Store's percussive aspects reveals a devastating virtuosity that blurs the line between technique and technology in the same way that Battles does.

Superficially, Death Grips is loud and angry – perhaps even caustic. They might not be for everyone. During our recent grout-sealing party at the new house, The Money Store was one of six CDs that was not packed in a box. I put it in just to see what would happen. Within five minutes, the volume was turned down to a barely audible level, and within ten, the angelic strains of Sigur Ros’ Valtari began wafting from the kitchen. Oh, well – experiment failed.

With a pedigree that runs in the same circles as noise bands like Hella and The Boredoms, It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Death Grips has such a caustic veneer. The Money Store is an incendiary, confrontational assault that pounds on the boundaries between hip-hop, electronica, industrial, and punk. Listening to it in traffic with too much caffeine is a recipe for a dangerous case of road rage. It is also, however, tempered by intellect and substance, and because of this, The Money Store has become a 2012 favorite. It’s first really angry music that I have listened to in a long time that I genuinely believe in.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

North Atlantic Oscillation's Shimmering Light in the Fog

For a prog rock album to surpass the status of guilty pleasure or, even worse, token in my library, it can’t rest on the laurels of the past too much. Admittedly, I have my share of favorite retro-prog projects, but they are often consumed quickly and discarded. For this reason, I generally take greater notice when an indie or alternative site calls attention to a new prog band than when a progressive rock site heaps praises on the next big thing. Every now and then, though, a group comes along that breaks the expectations of what progressive rock is, but whose proggish adventurousness can’t be ignored by the more conservative communities. The last time this happened, I discovered Mew, a band that has evolved into one of my all-time favorites. I still lurk on progressive rock sites for rare instances like this.

Several months ago, I read a review of North Atlantic Oscillation’s Fog Electric that piqued my interest. It was, by its own admission, somewhat vague, but it indicated that instrumental histrionics were downplayed in lieu of songcraft in a “modern take on progressive rock.”  These descriptors begged me to dig further, so I looked up the video for Soft Coda.

Its triumphant, expansive tone captured my attention. Indeed, North Atlantic Oscillation did not fit the classical prog paradigm. They did, however, seem to have a distinctive sound and an exploratory veneer. Still, I was wary, so I subjected Fog Electric to a somewhat uncharacteristic vetting process. I began running the entire album on low-fi Spotify during late night chores. Only after several months did it finally earn its way into rotation.

What immediately set the band apart from a lot of current progressive music I run into is the translucent vocal approach of guitarist and keyboardist Sam Healy. I readily admit that Peter Gabriel was, and is, a conceptual genius, but after 40 years of reinvention, his flamboyant approach to progressive showmanship has resulted in some embarrassing melodrama. North Atlantic Oscillation neatly sidesteps this issue with a crystalline falsetto that has more in common with Brian Wilson than Fish. When it is stacked in harmony (and it often is), comparisons with the Beach Boys are impossible to ignore.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it takes a little familiarity for the listener to gain a foothold on what is brewing beneath the surface of Fog Electric. It is, however, not so aloof and self-indulgent that it holds the listener at arm's length. On the contrary, it’s immediately quite inviting and consistent. Granted, there are bombastic Marillion-esque bridges, Hackett-inspired guitar interludes, and cleverly crafted asymmetrical time signatures that are clearly derived from the progressive rock canon. By and large, however, North Atlantic Oscillation also compares quite favorably with more subdued explorations from contemporary torchbearers like M83, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead.

In actuality, many of these comparisons are feeble at best. During the vetting process, it was not so easy to draw a straight line between Fog Electric and anything else I was listening to, which is what made it so compelling. The more I unraveled it, the more influences I seemed to add to the list, until finally I decided that perhaps North Atlantic Oscillation might be onto something a bit more unique than I was giving them credit for. Fog Electric is, I think, something special: a much-needed, genuinely fresh, creative statement in the progressive rock genre that could also serve a much broader audience.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 6: Cookin' With Beck and Mraz

Because Brendan Benson was never actually in Jellyfish, I set a somewhat daunting precedent when I included him in this series. Jellyfish’s members have contributed their talents to numerous projects, and to take them all into account might stretch this project on almost indefinitely. Although I have often used the presence of Jellyfish members to guide my listening choices, there are many albums that they have co-written or played on that I simply have not heard.  There are, however, some that have become favorites.

In the late 90s, Jellyfish and Imperial Drag keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning was a studio contributor on Beck’s Mutations, and was also a member of the performing band during the tour to support the album. Mutations is the release in which Beck revealed just what a chameleon he is. For artists like David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince, reinvention was a matter of course. Beck’s identity shifts were never quite as dramatic, but they were no less jarring. After the ramshackle hobo pop of Mellow Gold and the genre-bending whiteboy funk of Odelay, Mutations, a relatively atmospheric and somber offering, was a bit of a surprise.

When Mutations came out, I was already a fan of Beck. When I discovered that Manning made significant keyboard contributions to the album, however, it reframed the entire listening experience. By this point in his career, his experiments with The Moog Cookbook, a series of tongue-in-cheek parodies of 70s keyboard albums, solidified his status as the go-to torchbearer for classic keyboard sounds. Mutations has a somewhat retro feel to it, and undoubtedly Manning contributed greatly to this sound.

I did not follow the Moog Cookbook, but I did get into one of Manning's analog keyboard experiments.  In 2000, he, along with collaborator Brian Reitzell, released Logan's Sanctuary, a soundtrack to an imaginary sequel to the 1976 film Logan's Run.  I was particularly interested in this release because it featured a couple of collaborations with Jason Falkner that were pretty good, but overall its stylistic relationship with Jellyfish was tenuous at best.  

Metropia by Logan's Sanctuary on Grooveshark

Despite his experimental side, Manning was always able to keep one foot in the pop realm.  Several years later, I became a fan of Jason Mraz's sophomore release, Mr. A-Z.  This album came to have special meaning during the Carrollton Period.  It will one day deserve its own posting, but I have to mention it here because I remember quite clearly being inexorably drawn to the funky analog bass sounds in Geek in the Pink.  I was hardly surprised when the liner notes revealed that Manning contributed keyboards to the track.

Again, Manning's resume has done nothing but grow rhizomatically since his days in Jellyfish - far beyond my ability to keep up.  Although he has played keyboards on numerous albums with a variety of artists, he remains a transparent contributor that, paradoxically, always lets his unique character shine through.  Undoubtedly, there will be fans who implore me to include their overlooked favorites, and I hope they will. Most likely, these suggestions will make their way into rotation in the near future.

To review the previous post in this series, hit me up here.
To jump to the next one, click here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dr. Spin's Best Albums of 2012 Part 1: Numbers 11-20

Those of you that are paying attention might be wondering about a couple of loose ends from the past few months, so I’m gonna take this opportunity to pat myself on the back. Back in August, I took, and passed, my Sandan test at aikido summer camp. Earlier this month, I also passed my CrossFit Level-1 certification. Even better, by the end of this week, I’ll have a little space carved out for anyone that might want to work out too, because we are signing on the new house this Friday.

Things seem to be coming together, and they are, but at the moment we are living in chaos. The apartment is in shambles and my wife and I are exhausted, yet we press on.  If there is anyone out there who has thought about buying stock in an energy drink company, do it before this weekend. I feel confident that’s going to be the only thing keeping me going by then.

Like last year, I have forgone a proper “November Roundup” and instead posted the first (lower) half of my “Best of 2012” list. The best-of is not constrained to albums with a 2012 release date, but instead includes any album that came to have meaning to me this year. Albums that are strongly associated with past experiences do not qualify and, consequently, neither does any album from a previous year's list.

I am very pleased with this year’s results.  Even this second half works quite well as a representation of my listening experiences this year.  Not much jazz, unfortunately, but more rap and electronica than usual, a renewed interest in progressive rock, and a smattering of power pop and folk-ish songwriting.

20.  P.O.S. - We Don't Even Live Here: As much as Undun by The Roots deserves a place on the list as an example of what classic, mature, artistically motivated hip-hop can achieve, this recent release  from P.O.S. edged it out on the basis of its DIY adventurousness.  Like its predecessor, We Don't Even Live Here crossover success imbeds a rock attitude within a deeply musical hip-hop setting.

19. Kraftwerk - Man-Machine: I consider this album masterful from two perspectives: in terms of both its forward-thinking technological approach and its broad influence. Its appearance on the 2012 list also represents some other encounters with Kraftwerk this year that I have found inspiring, not the least of which was Autobahn.

18. Brendan Benson - What Kind of World?:  The relatively dark, moody approach that Benson adopted for this album took me awhile to warm up to.  Regardless, it is, as expected, a top-notch collection of power pop from one of the most consistent writers in the genre. 

17. North Atlantic Oscillation - Fog Electric: A very, very late entry, but I think that its inclusion is justifiable.  It sits comfortably at the crossroads of Marillion and M83, with a little Beach Boys and Sigur Ros thrown in for spice - more on them very soon. 

16. Bon IverBon Iver earned "album of the year" on many 2011 year-end lists, and set the bar really high for my 2012 entries.  It is, in my opinion, a beautifully crafted and special album. 

15. The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics:  The Flaming Lips have emerged as one of the leading experimenters in popular music.  Although I've had this album in my collection for quite awhile, my obsession with The Soft Bulletin prevented me from appreciating its nearly orchestral scope until this summer.

14. M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us:  Even though M83 has evolved quite a bit since this release, Before the Dawn Heals Us does not show its age at all.  In fact, it lives in it own universe so effectively that if it were released in 2012, it would be no less relevant.

13. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact:  At times hypnotic, at others powerful, Eye Contact never ceases to be an engaging listen.  Moreover, it just sounds good, and its pristine production is a testament to the clarity that is possible in the contemporary studio.

12. Seryn - This is Where We Are:  Once it clicked, This is Where We Are became difficult to remove from the player.  It satisfies those of us that have been waiting for Peter Gabriel to do something new and fresh.

11. Anglagard - Viljans Oga: It was completely worth the decades-long wait (and the added month for shipping) for this follow up to Epilog.  Like its predecessors, it balances passion, intellect, musicianship, and aggression in just the right amounts so as to make it nearly endlessly rewarding.

To jump to the next half, click here.