Favorite albums of 2012

My music listening was way down this year. I blame it on all the movies and starting a new job. The end result is that my best picks here probably aren’t quite as strong as they were in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2011. But still, some good stuff. As in previous years, the vast majority of this came before 2012, but this was the year I paid attention.
January

Mariah Carey Greatest Hits

Greatest Hits – Mariah Carey. This album saw me through the end of a hard winter. So much goodness. I don’t know if I’ll ever dive into one of her full albums… but some of these peaks are so high I may reconsider. Emotions!

Return to the Winners Circle – Curren$y. If I needed to, I could rank this solely on the strength of Moon & Stars Remix. Rare that the headliner and two guest rappers all just destroy their verses. And I love that backbeat.

The Soul Tape – Fabolous. I like Pain (“An old head told me, let nothing disturb your business / Beef is only good when you in the burger business”) and In the Morning.

February

Da Chip

Da Chip Vol. 1 & 2 was a fun listen, but probably works best if you’re already familiar with Daft Punk, right?

March

Senor Coconut, El Baile Aleman

Sometimes you don’t realize it, but what your life is missing is an awesome collection of Kraftwerk tunes covered with a Latin/lounge feel. Thankfully my buddy John knew what I needed to hear: El Baile Alemán from Señor Coconut y Su Conjunto. For all the campiness, there’s some smart, creative arrangements here. Neon Lights and Showroom Dummies are good examples.

Fuck a Mixtape – T.I.. I don’t loooove the whole album, but worthy of mention: No Competition is my JAM.

Big Bach Set. It’s a great bargain. The Mass in B minor is a big draw, but besides that, the Adagio from the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1060 really stood out. Pizzicato in stereo is so wonderful on headphones.

April

Young Jeezy, Come Shop Wit Me

My best music month overall.

Come Shop Wit Me – Young Jeezy. I’m 9 years late, but it’s album of the year for me. My faves from Jeezy’s second are: Let Me Hit Dat (love those reverb guitars and the overactive bass; Fi Chief & Big Dank kill it), Take It to the Floor (pump-up/act like I’m someone I’m not song), Come Shop Wit Me (fun storytelling, and the overdriven bass line reminds me of a late ’80s video game), Thug Ya (steel drums!), and Bananas (fat, dopey bass, and something about his voice in the verses here: looser, goofier, unhinged).

Way Down Low from my friend Kat Edmonson. Listen to “Hopelessly Blue”. I mean, geez. Incredible voice.

Blue Afternoon. You’d figure I’d catch on to Tim Buckley sooner, having spent college obsessing over his son’s music. You’d figure wrong. Listen to Happy Time and Blue Melody. He’s got a wonderful back-up band. The whole gang is so loose. And look at that album cover!

And I can’t forget Françoise Hardy’s Soleil. I don’t understand any of it, but the mood is right. My favorite track is Je fais des puzzles.

May

Beach House, Bloom

Bloom – Beach House. It’s a lot like the previous three, which is totally fine by me. (I think only Bach and Camera Obscura beats them in my music archive for comfy, catchy, beloved predictability.) Myth is an obvious stand-out, but I think the verses on New Year are kinda genius. Same for Wild.

Shortly after that album came out, I caught Beach House on tour again. On the drive back from Athens, a friend introduced me to Bad Vibes by Shlohmo. Drippy, druggy lullabies. Places and Seriously are favorites.

June
I got nothin’.

July

My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

Loveless – My Bloody Valentine. Woah. Slept on this one but the Grantland article woke me up. I was so proud of myself when I recognized the Loomer/Optimistic resemblance.

August

Tangerine Dream, Thief

A great month for radio in the car!

Kaleidoscope Dream – Miguel. Adorn has gotten crazy playtime in Atlanta. That bass is perfect for your car. And I love how the harmony is a little suppressed, so that voice and the bass do all the driving.

Trilla – Rick Ross. My friend Katie and I were driving to one of my favorite places to eat too much, if I recall correctly. I heard the opening sample from my favorite Stevie Wonder album in Here I Am and I was sold. I made her Shazam it for future reference.

To round out the group: Channel Orange – Frank Ocean. WRAS 88.5 FM played Pyramids while I was driving over to another friend named John‘s house and I lost it. I *had* to call in and find out what it was. You can’t beat that feeling.

I didn’t hear it on the radio, but I can’t forget the Thief soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Probably best if you’ve seen the awesome movie, but it’s great for working on secret projects.

September
{crickets}

October
I didn’t bother with the whole album, but Clique from Cruel Summer is dope. Perfect beat, but the song doesn’t really take flight until Jay-Z gets on the mic (that jet engine glissando helps). Kanye takes lovable insufferability to a new level.

November

Toru Takemitsu, Asterism, Requiem, Green, Dorian Horizon

Asterism/Requiem/Green/The Dorian Horizon – Toru Takemitsu. I really like it, but only recommended if you’ve got ears for late 20th-century orchestral music…

December
It’s not too late for your suggestions!

Favorite albums of 2011

Here we go again. Short version: you should buy Kaputt, Hotter Than July, Trap Muzik, Five Italian Oboe Concertos, Apocalypse, The Last Days of Disco OST, Night Drive, and Watch The Throne.
The same rules hold from 2008, 2009, and 2010: these recommendations are selected from all the new-to-me music I listened to this year. Old stuff, new stuff, no matter. Fortunately, 2011 started with my favorite album, which means I got to listen to it all year long.

January

Kaputt

My favorite album of this month, and the year, was Destroyer’s Kaputt, and very few come close to topping it. Amazing listen.

January was my first exposure to Freddie Gibbs, who quickly became one of my favorites. It’s not the most polite music you’ll ever hear, but still… Midwestgangstaboxframecaddilacmuzik is excellent (see: County Bounce, I’m the Man, Boxframe Cadillac).

Curren$y, Pilot Talk and Pilot Talk II. I love the production on both of these. The first has higher peaks, I think (e.g. Breakfast, The Day), but the second is more consistently good.

The Roots, Rising Down. Rock-solid.

February

Bach/Kozena - Arias

Bach. Arias. Can’t go wrong with that combo. Magdalena Kožená sings with Musica Florea cond. Marek Strync. I loved Kožená’s album of French Arias that I heard last year. The highlight from this one was an aria from Cantata BWV 208 Schafe können sicher weiden.

You might recall that I got hooked on dhrupad last summer. Gundecha Brothers to the rescue again with Tears on a Lotus: Ragas Gaoti and Shivranjani.

March

Five Italian Oboe Concertos

Five Italian Oboe Concertos. I played the shit out of this one. Nicholas Daniel and the Peterborough String Orchestra.

Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet, Afro Latin Soul. Great start to finish. Latin tends to wear on me after a while, but this one stays pretty fresh.

Irma Thomas, Wish Someone Would Care. Without Love (There Is Nothing) is a strong, strong tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. It grew on me. Bloom and Give Up the Ghost are the top picks here.

April

Hotter Than July

Big month. Brace yourself.

In April, I started a Stevie Wonder review project, which made clear to me the trouble with best-of lists. Forget Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions. They’re the reflexively-mentioned albums because they’re damn good. But one of the problems with them being both great and popular is that if you don’t *really* *love* the albums like you think you should, you might give up on the guy. Like I did.

So I’d never heard of his actual best album, Hotter Than July (←opinion!). All I Do, Rocket Love, I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It, and As If You Read My Mind make one of the best four-song sequences you’ll hear.

Fullfillingness’ First Finale is Wonder’s second-best album for me, in no small part because Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away has become one of my all-time favorite songs. Music of My Mind is a close third (see: Happier Than the Morning Sun and Keep on Running). Talking Book is also great (Maybe Your Baby is my fave).

I guess the bottom line is that he’s written a TON of REALLY GOOD music. I need to keep in mind the rule for many really good artists: if the super-popular super-great album/painting/sculpture/book still isn’t quite your thing, there’s still a good chance there’s another worthwhile one out there.

End of digression.

Marvin Gaye, I Want You. I’ve frequently mentioned my love for the title track, but there’s also After the Dance, I Wanna Be Where You Are and Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again.

In another example of how critically-acclaimed amazing things can overshadow other amazing things (what I loosely term the Wonder Conundrum), Let’s Get It On is known for… Let’s Get It On. Rightly so, great track. But If I Should Die Tonight is sooooooo damn good. I also have this weird association with it, as it shuffled on when I found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “How many hearts, baby, have felt their world stand still?”

R. Kelly’s Love Letter got foisted on me somehow and I don’t regret it. Love Letter and Number One Hit are the favorites.

John Coltrane’s Stardust was one of the few jazz albums I heard and liked this year. Title track.

Curren$y & Alchemist, Covert Coup. Mostly recommending on the strength of Freddie Gibbs’ guest appearance on Scottie Pippens, though Smoke Break and The Type are also quality.

Speaking of Freddie Gibbs again, I also got into The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Str8 Killa No Filla. Both worthwhile. See: How We Do, Do Wrong, Crushin’ Feelin’s, Slangin’ Rocks and most especially Rock Bottom.

May was another really strong month…

May

Trap Muzik

Holy shit, T.I.. My favorite rapper? Probably, yes. Trap Muzik is brilliant. See: Trap Musik, No More Talk, Doin’ My Job, Look What I Got, and Be Better Than Me.

I’d never listened to much Bill Callahan, but glad I started with Apocalypse. Such a good album. My favorite tracks are Drover and One Fine Morning.

Cass McCombs was also new to me. Wit’s End wears out just a little bit by the end, but County Line is a damn fine song.

I’m gonna go ahead and add in Terry Riley’s You’re No Good single here. Partly because it’s awesome, and also because its late ’60s minimalist sound segues nicely into June’s top pick.

June

Electric Harpsichord

Catherine Christer Hennix, The Electric Harpsichord. It’s one track that’s only 25 minutes and change, but this is fantastic.

Another must-recommend single from June was Radiohead’s Staircase (live From the Basement). I hope you didn’t miss it.

Getting back to full albums, The Rosebuds were a nice surprise. Of the albums I heard, Loud Planes Fly Low and Life Like are the best. See: Come Visit Me, Waiting for You, and Border Guards.

July

Down with the King

Bach again. He rarely goes wrong. Cantatas: Trauerode BWV 198 and Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 is a nice pair of cantatas performed by La Chapelle Royale under Philippe Herreweghe’s direction.

T.I. again, with DJ Drama. Down With The King. This one came from a list of albums recommended in Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South. Top picks are Jackin’ for Beats, Welcome Back, and Xtaci’s hilarious/brilliant “Why?” freestyle.

Bumba Massa, Dovi. This is sonic Prozac.

August

The Last Days of Disco OST

The Last Days of Disco OST. I previously called this an UNDENIABLE SOUNDTRACK and I stand by that statement. Disco!

I’d never listened to much MF Doom. Take Me to Your Leader is funny and mental and weird and delightful. I love his production and the use of old film clips. I ought to find some more of his work in 2012.

September

The Last Laugh

Yeah… so… Young Jeezy pretty much owned September. I’m the first to admit his lyrics often blow, but man his delivery and production are so good, so often. The Last Laugh mixtape had my favorite tracks, with Pressure’s On and Game Over on repeat pretty often. Trap or Die (see: “GA” freestyle), Trap or Die 2, and 1,000 Grams were the most consistent of the other mixtapes I listened to.

October

Night Drive

I played the shit out of Chromatics’ Night Drive. It seems to fit a lot of moods: work-time productivity, lazy lounging, driving about town…

Hariprasad Chaurasia made one of my favorite albums from last year. Raga Darbari Kanada & Dhun in Mishra Pilu is another solid one.

T.I.’s The Leak is a classic. Front Back Side to Side and Do U Really Want Me are the favorites here.

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the only Camera Obscura album I hadn’t heard yet. It’s amazing how consistent their sound has been since this early stuff, and how it still satisfies every single time.

November

Watch the Throne

Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne. I didn’t want to like this album. It’s part of a foolish contrarian streak that doesn’t always serve me well. I actually didn’t like much of it besides No Church in the Wild and Otis (still my favorites) on first listen, but it keeps growing and growing on me. I expect this one to last.

Drake, both Thank Me Later and Take Care. Apparently I’m a Drake fan? I also didn’t want to like these, an opinion mostly based on songs I was tired of hearing on the radio. Happy to be proven wrong. I like Marvin’s Room, Doing It Wrong, and Karaoke in particular.

December

Southern Royalty

After listening to a bunch of other mixtapes this year (and re-visiting Big Pimpin’), I realized I love Bun B. Of the mixtapes I collected, Legends Series Vol. 1, No Mixtape, and Southern Royalty are favorites. Give a listen to It Ain’t Me, I Made It, and The Champion.

I also got UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, which is awesome — thanks again to Westhoff’s Dirty South recommendations for the tip.

Decoded (review)

Decoded
Jay-Z’s Decoded is a wonderful book. Read it. I’d love to read more nonfiction like this. So conversational, relaxed, super-smart. And it’s just a really beautiful book. Lots of photos, lyrics and footnoes, pull-quotes. I started off a little skeptical, just skimming for pictures and quotes and anecdotes, but then I just had to start over and read it straight through. Highly recommended. Here’s some favorite parts…

An important lesson from “Coming of Age”:

Ten thou’ or a hundred G keep yo’ shit the same

Next up is maybe my favorite line from the whole book. The context is the music business, but the wisdom applies well beyond. Emphasis mine:

In the streets there aren’t written contracts. Instead, you live by certain codes. There are no codes and ethics in music because there are lawyers. People can hide behind their lawyers and contracts and then rob you blind. A lot of street cats come into the music game and expect a certain kind of honor and ethics, even outside of contracts. But in business, like they say, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So I mind my business and I don’t apologize for it.

Speaking of business, when he was just getting started, he knew to put the plans on paper…

We didn’t know the business yet, but we knew how to hustle. Like a lot of underground crews on a mission, we were on some real trunk-of-the-car shit. The difference with us was that we didn’t want to get stalled at low-level hustling. We had a plan. We did more than talk about it, we wrote it down. Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did. We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.

I think this next bit is a pretty incisive take on poverty. Cuts right to the heart of it. Emphasis mine:

One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. […] The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.

Yep.

Later in the book he talks about the tension between being a ridiculously wealthy businessman with lingering remnants of street thug…

Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bullshit is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.

Which reminds me of a quote I already tumbled:

I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life—now that I’ve got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers—that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?

I first read this bit in The Millions (thanks, Austin!). It’s about piecing together your influences:

The seventies were a strange time, especially in black America. The music was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in a dark time. I feel like we–rappers, DJs, producers–were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift: We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.

And speaking of fathers, one of the wisest bits come in his footnotes for the song “Moment of Clarity”:

My father and I didn’t have a lot of deep conversations before he died, but we did have one important one. When I first reconnected with him, I hit him with questions and he came back with answers until I realized nothing he could ever say would satisfy me or make sense of all the feelings I’d had since he turned his back on us. In the end, he broke down and apologized. And, somewhat to my surprise, I forgave him. […] Although this verse starts off on a cold note–I seem indifferent and even smirking about his death–that’s only me being honest. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know him that well. But at the same time, it was so important that we did meet up before he died. It was important for me to hear him say he was sorry and for me to hear myself say, “I forgive you.” It changed my life, really. I wish every kid who grew up like me could have the same chance to confront the fathers who left them, not just so they can lay out their anger, but so they can, in the end, let that anger go.

Favorite albums of 2010

Short version: you should buy How I Got Over, Watertown, White Light, Station to Station, and The Black Album. What follows are more highlights from my year, month by month. As in 2008 and 2009, the general rule here is I don’t care if it actually came out in 2010, it’s just that I happened to pay attention this year.

January

Before and After Science

Brian Eno, Before And After Science. I *love* No One Receiving and By This River. In a similar vein, but not quite as good, were Fripp & Eno’s albums Evening Star and (No Pussyfooting).

Cocteau Twins, Victorialand and Head Over Heels. Twisting vocals and dark, driving Cure-ish soundscapes. These guys are great.

Ama Maïga, Une Fleche Malienne. Kora + Afro-pop. The first and last tracks are my favorites.

Linda Perhacs, Parallelograms. Think Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell-esque dreamy acoustic guitar with solid songwriting. This album’s vibe would echoed in October with one from Françoise Hardy…

Steve Roach, Structures from Silence. I’m not quite sure how to distinguish good ambient music from bad ambient music, aside from maintaining a general sort of peacefulness, but I liked this a lot.

February

Watertown

Frank Sinatra, Watertown. This is my favorite one that wasn’t released this year. It’s another of his heartbreak concept albums, and it definitely holds its own against In The Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely. I have no idea why this one is still underground.

Antônio Carlos Jobim, Wave. His most successful album. Stone Flower came out a few years later and is worth a listen, if only for Brazil.

Sayeeduddin Dagar, Lineage of Dhrupad. I hadn’t listened to much Indian vocal work before this year, but this album sold me on it, especially the old dhrupad stuff. The voice and breathe control is super-impressive. Lots more to come later in the year.

March

The Inspiration

Young Jeezy, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102. Atlanta’s own. He’s not the best lyricist, but I love his voice/delivery and the steady, drenched sound you hear in most of the production. And he has good samples. Standout tunes are Hypnotize and The Inspiration (Diana Ross sample!). Great nighttime city-driving music.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Charm of the Bamboo Flute. This might be my favorite Indian album this year.

Magdalena Kožená, performing a collection of French Arias. Charles Gounod’s O ma lyre immortelle from Sapho and Nuit resplendissante from Cinq-Mars are the best ones. Ambroise Thomas’ Connais-tu le pays from Mignon is a close third.

Crystal Tears is a solid Renaissance collection from Andreas Scholl singing with Julian Behr on the lute and the Concerto di Viole Basel. John Bennet’s Venus’ birds whose mournful tunes is a good one and John Dowland’s Go, crystal tears is a classic.

Flanders Fiamminghi Orchestra and conductor Rudolf Werthen put together the awesome An I Fiamminghi Collection. Highlights for me are Alan Hovhaness’ Prayer of St. Gregory and Henryk Górecki’s Pieces in the Olden Style.

Mariem Hassan, Deseos. This might be my favorite African album of the year. Sick desert blues riffs + powerful vocals. Check out Magat milkitna dulaa, or Sbar. Mariem Hassan con Leyoad is not quite as good.

April

Radio-Activity

Kraftwerk, Radio-Activity. A lot of it is pretty toned-down and spacey compared to the earlier stuff I loved so much last November.

Gundecha Brothers & Uday Bhawalkar, Timeless Dhrupads. Whoever is playing mridangam here is just killing it.

Duruflé: Requiem & Four Motets. Lovely recording. This one is a happy medium between the sleepy Fauré Requiem and Verdi’s ridiculous one.

Yeasayer, Odd Blood. This one took a while to grow on me, though I loved All Hour Cymbals. Mondegreen is the best song, followed by I Remember.

Glenn Gould recorded Brahms’ Ballades, Op. 10 and Rhapsodies, Op. 79. I don’t know if Gould is a good Brahms interpreter or not, but he helped me overcome my long-standing aversion to the guy. I like the Ballades in particular.

May

Rosso: Italian Baroque Arias

This was baroque month, apparently. While only two albums stood out, they were very, very good.

Rosso – Italian Baroque Arias, sung by Patricia Petibon with Andrea Marcon conducting the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Highlights for me: from Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista, Queste lagrime e sospiri; from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Piangerò la sorte mia; and from Sartorio’s L’Orfeo, Orfeo, tu dormi. Dang, y’all.

I also enjoyed various Baroque Oboe Concertos with Marcel Ponseele on the oboe, with Ensemble Il Gardellino. One particular favorite is Bach’s Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156.

May was odd in its uniformity. I’m not sure what connects Bach and Bowie, but they were both highlights for the next month…

June

Station to Station

David Bowie, Station to Station is a masterpiece, pure and simple. See: Golden Years, Stay, Wild Is the Wind, and everything else.

Collegium Vocale Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe did some good work on Christus, der ist mein Leben: Bach Cantatas BWV 27, 84, 95, 161.

Olivier Latry played César Franck’s organ stuff on In Spiritum. Much of it is pretty mellow. The Pièce héroïque is wonderful, as is the Prelude, fugue and variations, Op. 18.

July

Something for Everybody

Devo’s Something For Everybody was surprisingly fun. It doesn’t seem very ambitious, just upbeat, tight, and it reaps major benefits from keeping the songs brief and to the point.

Sundrips, Slow Futures. More ambient. Everything I’ve heard from Sundrips has been pretty good.

Ramakant & Umakant Gundecha, Ancestral Voices. More dhrupad. There is something incredibly fulfilling about the pattern of slow, meditative, exploratory beginnings that build to rhythmic extravagance by the end. Sooltal of Raga Charukeshi is a favorite here, but it’s not as satisfying if you don’t listen to the opening.

August

How I Got Over

The Roots, my friends. How I Got Over is my favorite album released this year. It’s a lovely piece of work. Writing, production, performances, variety. It’s all in there. Favorite track = Now or Never, followed closely by the title track.

This month actually kicked off with Beat Connection’s Surf Noir EP, which was available on their site and is probably easy to download somewhere else now. Sunburn followed by In the Water is one of the great album openings. Nice closer, too, with Same Damn Time.

M.I.A.’s Kala makes me wish I was on something. Paper Planes is one for the ages.

Like St. Vincent’s Actor last year, The Ruby Suns’ Fight Softly gets better as it goes along. It’s not as sharp as Annie Clark’s work (but what is?), but solid nonetheless. Two Humans is the one to hear.

September

Inventions for Electric Guitar

Ash Ra Tempel, Inventions for Electric Guitar. Something like Steve Reich + Robert Fripp, maybe? Whatever the ingredients, it’s good space-trippy music.

Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight. How have I ignored this so long? The title track, Silver Lining, The Moneymaker, and Dejalo are stand-outs. The rest are really good.

Fire Beneath My Fingers is a sweet collection of recorder concertos. Like I said, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata RV 86 is my jam.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Slow Version. The speed change creates a whole different feel for a great body of work.

The Clientele, Minotaur. Like an updated version of The Byrds, tempered with a dash of Devendra Banhart or Iron & Wine or something.

Thione Seck, the Best of. I love the layers of drumming, big horns, funky guitar riffs. See Mane Mi Gnoul, Mass Ndiaye, and Yaye Boye.

October

Darker Than Blue

This might have been the best month overall. The favorite was Darker Than Blue, Soul From Jamdown 1973-1980. Jamaican bands cover American funk. Win-win. Check out Freddie McGregor’s cover of Get Involved (George Soule’s original) and John Holt’s For the Love of You (Isley Brothers original).

The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath. Another solid album.

Washed Out. The Life of Leisure EP came out late last year, but somehow I missed it. I can’t wait to see this dude for the third time in just a few weeks. I say this summer’s song, You and I, is a must-listen. Love that slow disco-stomp + sweet bass line.

As I did with Brahms, this year I also finally came to understand That Which Is Hendrix. Are You Experienced? did the job.

Françoise Hardy’s album La question kicks off with the breezy Viens, and sweeps through 11 more songs.

Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is fantastic, and apparently preceded much of what we call dance/trance/electronic over here in the States. This is my new upbeat Getting Shit Done music.

The collection of Brahms Symphonies from Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and conductor John Eliot Gardiner helped me get Brahms. It’ll take a few more listens to settle in, but they are good recordings.

November

White Light

Gene Clark, White Light and Roadmaster are excellent 70’s country-rock albums. Check out The Virgin, Where My Love Lies Asleep, and 1975. I’d never heard Clark outside of The Byrds, and I was surprised these solo albums were so good. His later album No Other misses the mark a bit for me (though Some Misunderstanding is superb).

Heart is an amazing band. I knew some of the songs from the radio, but never heard Little Queen and Dreamboat Annie all the way through. I didn’t expect them to be so good. It’s like a female-dominant Led Zeppelin + Rush + Fleetwood Mac + something else. Favorites include Love Alive, Too Long a Time and Dreamboat Annie.

Xavier Cugat, Cugi’s Cocktails. A lot of latin albums drive me nuts, but this one really hit the spot. I want to have a party where I try to mix+serve+consume each song’s corresponding drink before the song ends. The frenzy! The fun! Small portions, naturally. Favorites are Zombie and, of course, the Old-Fashioned.

Bach. Boom. James Kibbie recorded all of Bach’s organ works and they’re free for download. !!!

December

The Black Album

Jay-Z, The Black Album. Holy shit, guys. I take it all back. Jay-Z’s voice used to drive me nuts, but his writing from this era is so good. This is a seriously once-in-a-lifetime album. The Blueprint is also worthwhile. I need to check out the rest. (His latest album, with the exception of What We Talkin’ About, blows).

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Their three albums together are pretty priceless, e.g. Give A Little Love.

Favorite Albums of 2009

Like last year, I spent (way too much?) time going through iTunes to pick some stand-outs for my year in music. Like the previous list, most of these didn’t actually come out this year, but 2009 was the first time I gave them a serious listen. I’ll go month-by-month again, and holy cow January was amazing…
January
frank sinatra sings for only the lonely

Two fantastic albums from Frank Sinatra: both Only the Lonely and the earlier In the Wee Small Hours deal with the same sort of late-night streetlight melancholy.

Rush, Permanent Waves. The Spirit of Radio is a great way to start the year, no?

From Nashville to Memphis is a great Elvis collection. It’s got most of the hits you expect, some lesser-knowns and some good covers.

And another crooner: Cool Spring collects a couple Chet Baker sessions over in Italy. When I Fall in Love is one of my favorites.

Ali Farka Touré. I listened to the Red and Green albums and the self-titled album later this year, but this month’s Niafunke was the best of all. I like the richer sound and more varied instrumentation here.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dust to Gold. This is the only thing from him that I’ve heard. I wonder if it’s just the novelty that keeps me coming back, but I don’t regret it. Khawaja Tum Hi Ho (Master It Is Only You) is a good one.

February
My friend Kat Edmonson released Take to the Sky. w00t. Incredible voice and smart arrangements.

Eva Cassidy’s posthumous Somewhere is full of great covers. Some are folky, some are blues-rocky-y, and there’s the old ballad that just kills me every time, My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose.

March
works of igor stravinsky

March was Igor Stravinsky Month around here. Thanks to Alex Ross’ tip, I picked up that 22-disc Works of Igor Stravinsky. When you’re exposed to a full life’s work, you may hear as much that’s mediocre as is brilliant, but you also get a sense of all the labor that goes into it.

The Song from the Hill is a set of recordings of the Wind Harp, this giant sound sculpture on a hilltop in Vermont. Spooky, droning ambient-type stuff.

The Byrds. Mr. Tambourine Man. This is one of those albums that’s just unbelievably chock full of fantastic songs. I had no idea.

April
Kind of a weak month compared to the first three, but I did enjoy Diana Krall’s Quiet Nights and a collection of Richard Strauss’ work for voice and orchestra, Four Last Songs.

May
lady in satin

Lady in Satin, my friends. It was one of Billie Holiday’s last albums. You’ve got her aging voice taking on all-new material, backed (atypically) with a string orchestra. It is so good. For Heaven’s Sake and I’m a Fool to Want You are the stand-outs for me.

A lot of John Coltrane’s stuff leaves me feeling “eh”, but I thought Dear Old Stockholm was really nice. Dear Lord is my pick.

This was my first exposure to Beach House. Treat yourself to their self-titled album and Devotion, and you will be in a happier place. Teen Dream will also rock you, no doubt.

June
I came across Miles Davis’ Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions late in the month. Lots of good stuff there, collecting tracks from the same sessions that were released separately back in the mid-50s.

Back in college when I was in the orchestra, we did Ravi Shankar’s concerto featured on Sitar Concerto & Other Works. Perhaps the nostalgia influences this choice, but the other pieces are interesting in their own right.

July
heaven or las vegas

Cocteau Twins were totally new to me. Heaven or Las Vegas is really excellent. See also Treasure and Garlands.

Maybe it’s not really summer music, but I finally gave Elliott Smith some attention. I think Figure 8 narrowly wins over XO and Either/Or.

I might be including Dr. Dre’s 2001 simply on the strength of its opening tune, The Watcher. Makes me wish he’d spent more time on the mic these past couple decades. Nice new take on the familiar G-funk sound.

August
bringing it all back home

A weak month, but I sat with another album it took me a while to catch up on: Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home. It’s really good, y’all.

September
younger than yesterday

Another excellent month. Another round of success with The Byrds. This time it was Younger Than Yesterday and yet again, it’s another kind of ridiculously saturated-with-goodness album.

Follow that with Intimate Voices, with the Emerson Quartet playing works by Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg and my beloved Jean Sibelius.

This month was also the first time I’d heard Mahler’s 9th Symphony all the way through, so I can’t really compare this recording to interpretations. This piece is exhausting. In a good way, I think.

If you only know Erik Satie for his Trois Gymnopédies, then you are cheating yourself. His other piano works deserve your attention. The Gnossiennes are great.

I learned about Symphonies of the Planets from a friend at work. It’s ambient space music based on the NASA Voyager Recordings. Great stuff, if you can track it down.

walnut whales

I love Joanna Newsom, but had never heard her early, self-distributed Walnut Whales EP. That early organ version of Peach Plum Pear is so good.

I closed out the month with another epic box set: Rostropovich: The Russian Years, 1950-1974. Many of the recordings are premieres. And there’s even a few recordings with the composers (e.g. Shostakovich) accompanying on piano. I think that kind of personal, of-the-moment touch adds some life to the listening experience.

October
john coltrane and johnny hartman

The 1st of the month brought John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman into my life. It’s barely a half-hour, but man, it is fantastic. My One And Only Love is the clincher.

October also turned into Leonard Cohen Month. Death of a Ladies’ Man might be the favorite, but I’m Your Man is close behind. See also: every other album. They’re all good.

St. Vincent. Actor. Go get it. When I blipped Human Racing, I mentioned that the album gets stronger as it goes on. I stand by that statement and also can’t help but recommend Marry Me.

I closed out the month with some great soul. Sam Cooke’s Night Beat will make you really depressed that he died so soon after. And Marvin Gaye might have stretched himself a bit thin on Here, My Dear, but I love some of the anger and frustration there. Check out When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.

November
ralf and florian

November was Kraftwerk Month. I was familiar with the standard post-Autobahn Kraftwerk canon, but the early ones were nothing like I expected and also very good. Tone Float is trippy psychedelic-jam stuff from before they were Kraftwerk. And the self-titled albums are nice, but Ralf and Florian is probably my favorite from this era.

I’m not much of a Moby fan, but I was quite surprised with Wait for Me. The pace is more chill, the sound more personal. Really good.

In the same vein, a lot of Velvet Underground leaves me feeling “eh”, but Loaded, like the stuff from The Byrds earlier this year, is just packed with goodness. Though I hear it’s a somewhat divisive album…

December
It may be too early to tell, but right now I think the best has been the last three albums in Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram, and, out of nowhere, Wulomei’s album Kpabi.

Fun fact: I have a podcast

I haven’t talked about work much in the 3 or so years I’ve been running this site, but I thought it was time to share a side project I’ve been involved in. I’m a co-host of Stuff from the B-Side [iTunes link], wherein, twice a week, my friend John and I have a conversation about some aspect of the musical world. John knows about 38 times as much as I do and we always a good, low-key time.
I was looking back through the RSS file for our episodes and realized I’d been doing recordings for a half-year-ish now. The first couple (dozen) episodes I was in were pretty rough. But I always listen every week and it’s nice to hear (what I think somewhat resembles) progress. It’s certainly feels more comfortable in front of the microphones. It’s not nearly as strange to listen to my own voice anymore.

It’s nice that we get a lot of freedom to be the curious people that we are, exploring topics as we get fascinated by them or as listeners request them. Favorite episodes? I’m partial to the ones in which we talk about:

  • Musicians who use alter egos (including a discussion about the post-modern meta-cultural qualities of Hannah Montana and Eminem)
  • How to decipher classical music titles
  • The 1980s cassette version of iTunes
  • Guilty pleasures and what makes music “cool”
  • Brian Eno’s Music for Airports
  • Narcocorridos
  • The life and times of Billie Holiday
  • Terry Riley’s In C
  • Wizard Rock
  • Leonard Cohen
  • The West Coast/East Coast rivalry
  • The Dies Irae melody
  • Etc.

Also, I’d be silly not to mention that I’ve got smarter, even more well-spoken colleagues that do many other podcasts [iTunes] that are even better.

What Johnny Cash likes:

I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.

I love this post about measuring whether an artist is under- or over-valued. The method is pretty cool, basically comparing the Human Accomplishment ranking and the available Amazon music inventory, and making a rough P/E ratio. This post focuses on notable composers and it looks like Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque composers get shorted, while late Romantics (especially opera dudes) get more hype than they deserve. And you see the same sort of bias in the season programming of most major orchestras.
Anyway, two cool things this brings to mind. One, I like this idea of bubbles in culture. Reminds me of the vast difference in New York Times coverage of conflicts in Darfur vs. the Congo, though one area has been about 10 times as deadly. There are all kinds of interesting feedback loops that affect how we perceive and respond to our world. And two, realizing that there’s so much rough-and-ready data out there that we’ve unwittingly created, just waiting to be mined.

A collection of tweet-length opera synopses. A few favorites:
The Flying Dutchman: “Any port in a storm. Tall dark and mysterious wants my daughter. She wants to save him, but can she be faithful? Splashy splashy.”

Salome: “Out of control teen uses stepdad to get back at would-be boyfriend, learns some confusing lessons about love”

I can’t believe that people really prefer to go to the concert hall under intellectually trying, socially trying, physically trying conditions, unable to repeat something they have missed, when they can sit home under the most comfortable and stimulating circumstances and hear it as they want to hear it. I can’t imagine what would happen to literature today if one were obliged to congregate in an unpleasant hall and read novels projected on a screen.

Milton Babbitt

Stravinsky on remix and love

igor stravinskyIgor Stravinsky (↑, one of my favorite composers) is probably best known for his collaboration with Serge Diaghilev on the The Rite of Spring ballet and its scandalous premiere. But a few years after that, with Diaghilev’s prodding, he brought out another ballet score with older, more conservative roots, Pulcinella.

What made Pulcinella different was that Stravinsky took most of the music from lesser-known classical-era composers like Pergolesi, Gallo, Monza, et al. “It was a backward glance, of course, but it was a look in the mirror, too.” Stravinsky took whole melodies and bass lines from the old stuff, and within that framework he rejiggered the harmonies, rhythms, and orchestration.

I began by composing on the Pergolesi manuscripts themselves, as though I were correcting an old work of my own. I knew that I could not produce a ‘forgery’ of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent.

The reception of the new work wasn’t all positive…

I was… attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing ‘simple’ music, blamed for deserting ‘modernism,’ accused of renouncing my ‘true Russian heritage.’ People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals cried ‘sacrilege’: “The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.”

… but he had his reasons…

To them all my answer was and is the same: You “respect,” but I love.

Yeasayer has a blog while they work on the new album.

I notice that the rest of the band decided to get super organized while I was back in New York. They got a Dry Erase board and started to write ideas for song titles and album titles on it. Great idea guys! Every song should definitely have a title. So I thought to catch up I should start brainstorming some ideas after I ate breakfast. Here are the titles I thought of:

Sugar in the Raw
Recycling Ain’t Easy
Stove Won’t Light
I (Like my Cereal Hot)