Friday, July 08, 2011

End of year albums list

The music list for this year is comprised of the artists/albums that I found myself playing repeatedly for periods of time.

Bats “Daddy’s Highway”: Bouncy, simple guitar-based pop from 1987 that would satisfy anyone who likes bands like The Go-Betweens or even like Crowded House. Except with a very awkward lead vocalist who doesn’t always hit all the right notes. Still, I’m too charmed to care.

Stephin Merritt: Magnetic Fields “Distortion,” “Realism,” “Holiday,” “Get Lost,” both albums by The Sixths and Future Bible Heroes: Following my 2009 discovery of the masterpiece “69 Love Songs,” I’ve continued to be smitten by the songwriting of Stephin Merritt. His way with melodies you have to hear for yourself but below are a handful of couplets and verses from songs I discovered this year that floor me.

From “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind”:
“I want you crawling back to me/ Down on your knees, yeah/ Like an appendectomy/ Sans anesthesia.” Not only do I love the fact that a lyricist would use the phrase “sans anesthesia” (very poetic and original) but used in context here, very snarky and witty and acerbic. And a singalongable melody, too.

From “I’m A Vampire”:
“Survived the inquisition/ Been a harlot, been a queen/ I’ve lived for seven hundred years/ And I still look seventeen.” With vampires prevalent in present-day pop culture, this song should be a massive hit. It’s funny and catchy but also boasts techno instrumentation and a cool lead vocal by Claudia Gonson.

From “Drive On, Driver”:
“So take me to the airport/ I need to be extremely far away/ So I can forget about her/ I might forget about her someday/ Drive on, driver.” And while Claudia Gonson can do detached/ironic/witty well as heard in “Vampire,” she also can break your heart when given a simple, effectively sad lyric like the bridge in this song. (By the way, Merritt and his various singers gender-bend everything- you have men singing to men, women to women, and both versions of straight as well).

From “Strange Powers”:
“On a ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island/ Under more starts than there are prostitutes in Thailand/ Our hair in the air, our lips blue from cotton candy/ When we kiss, it feels like a flying saucer landing.” When he’s on, Merritt does it all- his songs are clever, original, catchy, witty, romantic, poetic, colorful, and compelling lyrically and melodically.

Cameron Stenger: “Fool’s Day,” “Where You Are,” & tracks from forthcoming third disc: Cameron is a former student from the school I still teach at. Six years ago, when he was a 10th grader, we played in a heavy rock instrumental group where Cam and I collaborated on composing songs that strung together riffs that probably resembled bands like Tool more than anything else. Not being a fan of that music in general myself, I decided to introduce Cam to some other kinds of music and once he picked up on Nick Drake and Elliott Smith in particular, his aesthetics took a drastic left turn. He picked up an acoustic, grew a beard, started writing lyrics and began showing off a decent singing voice. And he didn’t need me anymore. “Fool’s Day” is a 10-track disc that combines a handful of tunes written in his newly embraced singer/songwriter style and were recorded at Henning’s studio, a few tracks recorded on ProTools in his dorm room that rely on ambient textures as well as chord changes/ melodies and also contains an instrumental collaboration with me where we stepped away from the heavy rock riffs and instead came up with a delicious soundscape of two heavily reverbed guitars singing to each other in droney riffs and sumptuous melodic snippets. “Where You Are” finds Cameron staying consistently in his singer/songwriter style and although his singing is much more assured, and he’s found a way to make it so that his great ear for atmospheric production serves the songs more than constructs them, I prefer the first album mostly just because I personally favor eclecticism and variety over 12 songs that basically share a similar mood. Nevertheless, the tracks Cam has shared with me that will show up on his next album demonstrate that this third one has it all: sterling production supporting solid songs with meaningful lyrics, Cam’s gift for melodies & chords plus vocal performances that show that in a previous era, A&R people would be drooling over this unsigned talent.

Yo La Tengo “Painful,” “Fakebook”: Just as with Stephin Merritt, I’ve continued my affinity for Yo La Tengo from last year. “Fakebook” I’ve known for many years and still spin often whereas I just bought “Painful” recently and find they can hit this button in the pleasure center of my brain. For me, guitars/bass/drums can be so intoxicating sometimes, like food or sex or drugs.

The Impressions “Anthology”: I only listened to Disc 2 once all the way through- I can’t seem to get into those long-winded 70’s r&b jams of Curtis Mayfield but the 30 or so tracks that make up Disc One and cover the best sides of The Impressions from the 60s keep the hits coming and my attention span much prefers track times of 2:27 and 3:01 any day. This is where you’ll find the absolutely gorgeous “People Get Ready” and the fantastically catchy “You Must Believe Me,” “Gypsy Woman,” “Woman’s Got Soul,” etc. but some of those early tunes like “Grow Closer Together,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Little Young Lover” are not to be missed, either. Great tunes aside, the group is famous for their recognizable three-part harmony blend but there’s also Mayfield’s spare but fluid, expressive guitar playing anchoring their trademark sound.

The Turtles "Battle of the Bands": OK, this is a pretty goofy record and many of my musical friends might laugh at me for digging it but hey, it does feature two of the Turtles’ biggest and best hits in “Elenore” and “You Showed Me.” A few caveats: closer “Earth Song” may boast a simply gorgeous melody and supple twi-lit production but okay, the lyrics are a tad cringe-worthy, “Surfer Dan” features some tasty guitar licks (the group began their career as a surf-rock outfit called The Crossfires) and I like the late 60’s twist on the free-spirited no-home-address-I-go-where-the-waves-are surfer dude ethos allowing the title character to elude “Uncle Sam” and the draft but I suppose the track is somewhat marred by some silly, shrill vocalizing. Meanwhile, “Buzzsaw” blows your ass out with its fuzz bass and then jacks up the frat-rock intensity with a wailing organ solo but in the end, it is just a tossed-off instrumental. On the other hand, slight psychedelicity aside, “The Last Thing I Remember” yields a (ahem) memorable melody and the groovy “Oh Daddy” sounds like one of those fine riff-based ditties Boyce & Hart used to crank out for Turtles peers The Monkees. The overall concept of the album means that a few of the tracks are novelties: “Too Much Heartsick Feeling” is fine as a country tune but it’s camped up a tad too much to be respectful to either the tune or the genre, and “Food” is “Smile”-era Beach Boys silliness with its recitation of a recipe to make pot brownies (ooh, how scandalous for 1968!). Nevertheless, I never tire of the one and a half minutes of guilty pleasure “Chief Kamanawanalea” (read that word slowly to get the goofy wordplay housed within) and apparently I’m not alone in that, as De La Soul made the most of the track’s relentless beat on their debut album. I dunno. My guess is if you like 60s pop in general, you’re going to be susceptible to the record’s charms (I’m talking to you, Jason Bourgeois); failing that, don’t give it a second thought (I’m talking now to you, Ari).

Gene Clark “Roadmaster,” “White Light,” “Dillard & Clark,” “No Other”: Following last year’s poring through the Byrds catalog, I realized that I’d never fully immersed myself in Gene Clark’s career apart from his first disc with the Gosdin Brothers. And at this moment, I feel like abandoning this blog and cueing up “With Tomorrow” and just submitting myself to the gorgeousity of its serene melody. The first six tracks off “Roadmaster” would do just as nicely. Speaking of which, it was a holy grail of sorts finding “One In A Hundred” from that album, as it featured Gene and a reunited original Byrds lineup playing a track that could’ve easily been a single from 1965. A perfect Gene song, crystalline McGuinn 12-string Rickenbacker, exquisite David Crosby harmony- it’s all there.

Shoes “Black Vinyl Shoes,” “Present Tense,” “Tongue Twister,” “Boomerang,” “Silhouette”: I’ve always liked The Shoes- for example, that “Present Tense”/ “Tongue Twister” two-fer CD was a frequent spin back in the summer of 2007 when I needed rock-to-sleep music for infant Owen. But when I bought my grandmother’s car this last winter and was relegated to slooshying tunes on a car stereo with only a tape deck, I found myself grabbing random cassettes from downstairs that I’d never fully absorbed and “Shoes Best” (bought at For the Record in Amherst as a cut-out for $1.99 about fifteen years ago) was one of the first I gave a spin to (“Will You Spin For Me?”). So for about the next two months, I just kept it in the deck for that seven-minute-long trip to school everyday and gorged upon the many delectable items therein. Became a fan, really, and then started obtaining other albums of theirs, even communicating with Jeff Murphy via email a few times this last spring.
There’s a lot to like about this band. Sure, the catchy power-pop is what reeled me in but the more I learned about them, the more there was to appreciate. I love that the band is made up of two brothers and one buddy who have been musical partners and good friends for nearly forty years regardless of the status of their success (or lack thereof) at any given point and that each member writes and sings an equal amount of songs per album. Unlike, say, Badfinger, where Pete Ham was clearly the most talented songwriter, the democracy in The Shoes works since John, Jeff, and Gary are all equally adept at crafting great melodies and strangely, they all possess similar vocal timbres. In fact, before reading about them, I’d always assumed they only had one lead singer. Beyond that, the band was one of the first truly successful DIY outfits, recording their first three albums on a 4-track in their living room and then building their own studio out in Illinois for many of the others.
Although their first four videos were in rotation in the very early days of MTV, they never really caught on beyond cult status. And when you watch this first video, you’ll know why. The song, “Too Late,” is a perfect power-pop gem but singer Gary Klebe looks uncomfortable on camera and his bandmates, despite the then-de-rigeur long locks, add little visually. In other words, heavy MTV exposure at that time wasn’t primarily about great songs, it was about image and The Shoes were no Duran Duran or Culture Club or even Stray Cats or Madness for that matter.

Too Late

And now here’s a tune written and sung by Jeff Murphy:

Tomorrow Night

And just to be democratic as The Shoes themselves would appreciate, here’s a John Murphy track called “Your Very Eyes.” Although there’s one more MTV video of John’s “Cruel You,” which possesses a nice chugging groove to it, John was the one who usually wrote the killer ballads for the band, or at least had the softest, most McCartney-esque touch in the group so I opted for this album track instead:

Your Very Eyes

Bruce Springsteen “Tunnel of Love”: I can’t say Bruce is normally a favorite of mine but this album eschews the epics and workingman’s tales for a thematic take on Springsteen’s failing first marriage, and apart from one clunker, he brought the tunes. You all know “Brilliant Disguise” and the title track and perhaps “Tougher Than The Rest” but “All That Heaven Will Allow” and “When You’re Alone” show that Bruce can pen a hooky melody when he needs to. I wish he’d do it more but it’s not really what he’s known for and that’s fair enough.

Mash-ups: This fall, with the aid of youtube, I found myself falling hard for the charms of mash-ups. I think Ken Maiuri was the first to introduce mash-ups to me about ten years ago, with that great Christina Aguilera/ Strokes track and then I discovered one of my favorites not long after, the Stooges/Salt & Pepa track that is one of the most viscerally pleasing records I’ve ever heard- somehow all vestiges of pop are excised in favor of pure aggression and sexual energy through music. Anyway, youtube is a wonderland of mashup madness, with new faves being the Byrds/Beatles’ “Turn Turn Turn/Nowhere Man,” the one that blends Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives,” Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and perhaps even others buried in there. Sometimes the DJs create videos as well so that you get this party vibe to the Blondie/Paul McCartney/Jennifer Lopez mashup where everybody’s singing and dancing as if they were all in on it together. Although there’s a video for one of my favorite musical mashups (Madonna/The Who “Like A Virgin”/”Baba O’Riley”), the video-masher missed a great chance to sync lyric to image perfectly when they use footage of Pete Townsend shoving his guitar neck into a busted amplifier speaker but not during Madonna’s repeated uttering of “feels so good inside.” I dunno- maybe my mind’s still in the gutter after having just recalled that Stooges/ Salt & Pepa track.

Patsy Cline “20 Golden Greats”?: I have no idea whether that’s the real title or not but as I mentioned, when I purchased my grandmother’s car, I had to resort to listening to cassettes in it. Gram left a few for me and I’ve always liked Cline so this went down easy for a few spins until “Shoes Best” took over.

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