Future Islands – Singles (4AD)

Future Islands is a Baltimore based synth rock band who appears to have deservedly spiked a vein in part thanks to a strangely viral Letterman Show appearance in early May. I have long been a fan of their 80ish new wavey music and remarkably Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) vocals, but “Singles” is such a milestone leap forward in terms of accessibility and fidelity it is almost hard to fathom.

The real single on “Singles” is the inescapable “Seasons (Waiting On You),” but almost every track on the latest effort is toe-tapping masterpiece. “Spirit” has every bit of the synthesized energy of a Cut Copy or Small black, but again it’s the guttural crooning of singer Sam Herring that elevate it into something utterly transformative. I’ll be hard pressed to stumble upon something quite like this for a while.

The Bestest 2013: Tunage

I’m not sure you need me to tell you about the 2013 records by Kanye, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire. They were unanimously fawned over, richly produced concept pieces that actually hang together. Instead, I’ll focus on the handful of albums (yes I still tend to listen to albums – albeit in a digital form) that stood out and made 2013 another great year. Perhaps I am getting set in my ways, but I consume music through the following devices and platforms: Spotify, Sonos, Songza, Rdio, Jambox, Pandora, Sirius/XM, an iPhone, car CD player and an ancient B&O turntable. Ultimately, as long as you are listening to music that makes you happy and discovering new music every once in a while, it doesn’t matter how you consume it.

1) Junip – Junip (Mute)

Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez has long been a one of the best modern folk singers of our time, as a soloist, band leader (Junip) and occasional vocalist for bands like Zero 7. He has a beautifully calm and confident voice. His acoustic guitar playing is incredibly precise, almost Nick Drake-like its complicated simplicity. But with Junip, Gonzalez’s fully realized band, the results are sturdier, rockier, and generally serious songs filled with hypnotic grooves.

Although perhaps tapping into the Americana roots resurgence, Junip doesn’t aspire towards Mumford; they seem to be mining a darker more introspective place, but somehow still in the same tradition. Standout tracks like “In Every Direction” have every bit the groove of their American peers, but without any of the rootsy whimsy. Almost nothing struck me like this record this year, but then again I expected greatness.

2) Midlake – Antiphon (Bella Union)

For those paying attention, for nearly a decade Midlake has been an unheralded giant in the renaissance of big Americana rock music. Like a younger, rangier My Morning Jacket, the Denton, TX band creates sprawling guitar rock that tends to be cut more from their jazz roots, than the blues.

“Antiphon” is the first record made after the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, and is both less precious than its prior effort “The Courage of Others” and perhaps more original sounding than their brilliant “Trials of Van Occupanther” Fleetwood Mac inspired masterpiece. What it is, however, is a deadly serious, mightily compelling roller coaster of an arena rock classic. Lushly produced and orchestrated, this is music to be savored as a complete record, not as songs to be tossed randomly into a playlist. This is something very special.

3) London Grammar – If You Wait (Warner)

I’m not sure how big “If You Wait” will be by the time you finally get around to reading this, but even if it doesn’t end up filling the void left by an Adele/Florenceless year, I will still love it. It is the obvious bastard stepchild of The XX and Florence, with songwriting and production that is every bit as slick and seductive, but more than anything it all rides on the capable shoulders and vocals of Hannah Reid.
Even when you wean yourself off the hopelessly addictive “Hey Now” single, the rest of the album is a lush, sexy, smoky effort, reminiscent of the lovely trip hop of the early 90’s (Zero 7, Morcheeba, and even the 90’s 4AD roster). Driving music, head phone music, winter music, and summer music. A great record is always all of those, and so is this.

4) Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends (Atlantic)

Take all the anthemic brilliance that was the mid-90’s Oasis, wrap it in Portlandia hipsterism, and let Danger Mouse spin the dials and you have one of the finest albums of the year. Almost every song here is some kind of infectious groove mixed with a chorus that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to take notice.

On “Plastic Soldiers,” as with most of the songs on this album, things start innocently enough but eventually acoustic guitar strums morph into big chorus driven walls of melodic sound: “Could it be we got lost in the summer / I know you know that it’s over …” In the age of singles, it is great to hear albums created by bands that realize that singles are ephemeral, and that albums are forever.

5) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)

There isn’t a more distinctive straight-forward female voice in modern music than Neko Case. Perhaps PJ Harvey used to hold the torch, but Case has been making country-tinged solo records for years, and has been a card carrying New Pornographer since the beginning. She is a legitimate force of nature with her long red hair and silky voice.

This time out Case is less country (which is good) and more good old fashioned rock, rounded out with a super group of guests from Calexico, Mudhoney, MMJ and others. Songs like “City Swans” showcase what she has been doing for a decade – belting out endlessly catchy choruses and just letting her voice sail into some beautiful sunset. This is truly a special album. [Read more…]

Who Loves The Sun: Remembering Lou Reed

For some people it was the death of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or Jerry Garcia that made time stop. For me it was Lou Reed.

My seminal Lou Reed moment took place on a brisk Fall evening in 1988. I was a freshman in college and off on an East Coast road trip stopping by Wesleyan and Tufts, eventually making my way to Providence for an evening with an old friend at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had never been to Providence and I remember being instantly jealous of everything about the place as we walked across town to a cheap and delicious Vietnamese restaurant surrounded by a whole city of smart artsy hipsters. By the time we returned to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we got right down to the business of playing records and talking about music. At some point he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded.” Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of “Who Loves The Sun,” my mind was blown, and my musical life was changed forever. Then came “Rock & Roll” and “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” which were even more transformative for me. We must have played the album four times straight before we passed out, bleary-eyed, but high on music.

I had certainly heard Lou Reed many times before, but “Walk On The Wild Side”  – albeit cool, was not the Velvet Underground (VU). The band, I would learn, was managed by Andy Warhol, and became a symbol for the New York art scene in the late 60’s.  While The Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore and the Warfield, VU played Warhol’s Factory. They can almost single-handedly take credit for igniting what would ultimately become genres as far-reaching as punk, new wave, and later “alternative” or “indie rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, VU did for what would become “independent music.” There were many things that made them so unique beginning with their attitude, the all black fashion sense, the fact that they had one of the first female drummers (Mo Tucker), the incredible music (thanks largely to Reed and John Cale), and their devastating and authentic lyrics. But mostly it was that the band made music so far ahead of its time it still sounds like the future – even today.

“Loaded” was the last VU album, made with Lou Reed halfway out the door, and although their most accessible album, it is likely “The Velvet Underground & Nico” will remain the one in which they will be most remembered. Featuring the iconic Warhol banana image, and the vocals of European supermodel turned actress singer Nico, Reed created an album filled with gentle melodic ditties like “There She Goes” and “Sunday Morning” and juxtaposed them with gritty classics like “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

VU disbanded in 1970 after four proper albums, but this was just the beginning for Lou Reed. He literally created the art rock universe that still exists today. Without his influence, there would have been no Bowie/Ziggy, no Iggy Pop, no Ramones, Patti Smith, Strokes, Luna, or thousands of other bands that played in his wake. There were plenty of drugs, which oriented his music not only lyrically and emotionally, but unlike most of his peers, he persevered, never seeming to lose a beat. His storytelling describes primarily a hardscrabble NYC during the 70’s and 80’s. This was the era of Needle Park, city wide blackouts, the ultra sketchy East Village and Times Square and Harlem, but it was also the era of CBGB’s, the rise of independent record labels, and punk rock.

Lou Reed, was a musician from childhood. He played doo-wop songs in high school, studied poetry in college, and wrote pop songs for Pickwick after college. He was always all in, and smart and talented enough to have gone in any direction he might have chosen. Real artists are born artists. They don’t compromise and spend a lifetime evolving and experimenting. They inspire future artists, and leave a canon that will endure forever. His music was never easy. “Berlin” and “Metal Machine” were dense, impenetrable works that divided critics and fans, but “Transformer” established him post-Velvets as one of the most talented songwriters of all time. Less heralded classics like “New York” and “Magic and Loss” represent Reed becoming comfortable with middle age, and doing so with all the relevance and vigor of the Velvets Reed from 20 years prior.

In some ways Reed defined what cool would mean for nearly 50 years. It was most superficially the look and attitude, but more than anything there was that voice and that beautiful and distinctive guitar. It was unlike anything that had come before it. A kind of talk-singing-poetry set to music. At times it’s bleak and jarring, at other times it’s raucous and fun, but most of the time it’s just sublime and cerebral in a way that is largely impossible to describe.

New York is a vastly different place than the one Lou Reed chronicled between the mid-60’s and late 80’s. CBGB’s is long gone. Many of the great artists from that era are no longer with us. There is a Starbucks on every corner, the Disneyfication of Times Square, and the gentrification of the East Village. The death of Lou Reed surely signifies the end of something, but he will always be with us. That is the beautiful thing about music. The best of it will live on, finding new audiences, inspiring new artists, and leaving us with a portrait of a time long gone.

Like “Catcher and The Rye,” “Harold and Maude” and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, Lou Reed’s music set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without him.

Reed said it best in the classic tune “Rock and Roll:

But one fine mornin’ she hears a New York station
She doesn’t believe what she heard at all
Hey, not at all
She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Yeah rock ‘n’ roll

Yes, my life was saved or at least shaped by rock n’ roll. Thank you Lou.

TastemakerX V24: “Thank You Lou”


Is Yo La Tengo The Greatest Indie Rock Band Of All Time?

In the mid ‘80s a young rock journalist named Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley started a rock band. Their band, Yo La Tengo, was named after a Spanish baseballer’s lingo for “I’ve got it.” Their name has always been as accessibly irreverent as their music. Growing up in the late ‘70s early ‘80s the band’s influences included everyone from Love to the Velvet Underground. Punk music had come and gone and a different kind of American independent music scene had just begun. Enough time had passed that bands could now comfortably start to explore what had come before them with a sense of nostalgia and admiration, but not enough time had passed for it to not seem a bit ironic. But that is exactly what independent music has always been about: evolving the recent past while at the same time creating just enough original nuances to inform the future. But implicit in this pact is that only one of two outcomes were inevitable: mainstream success which involved alienating core fans by creating easier to swallow and broader reaching songs, or eventually fading into an adulthood that didn’t involve touring in vans and playing college towns. For twenty-eight years now Yo La Tengo has managed to live somewhere in the middle. Like their hometown of Hoboken, NJ just across the river from Manhattan, they seem most comfortable just one deviation from the center.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the debut Yo La Tengo album, “Ride The Tiger.” It was a fairly straightforward collection of jangly guitar sounds cut from the same cloth as the early REM and Feelies efforts. But as their career would progress, Yo La Tengo would evolve ever so slightly with every record. Much like trying to watch sap run down a tree, it would take a time lapse camera over a very long period of time to see fully the shape of the path it would take. Although most great bands manage to build gradually on their sound, very few of them have the patience and fortitude to see it play out over such a long period. Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Spoon have all adapted to the times by embracing, to varying degrees, electronica and keyboards, but none quite so subtly as Yo La Tengo.  Bands like Pavement, The Verve, and others would break up before being forced to confront the golden age of MP3’s and EDM. Perhaps much of this has to do with the fact that Ira and Georgia are married, and that their life together has presumably been spent making art. This is what they do, and they do it together. Having bypassed parenting for art, I’d imagine that this is what they will always do. Only Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth hold a candle to the idea that domestic life and art can coexist over such a long period of time. But sadly, as Sonic Youth wound down as a band, so did their marriage. Or perhaps it was the other way around. [Read more…]

The Bestest, Tunage 2012

This year, building a music discovery platform called TastemakerX, I was looking harder than usual at new music. I was doing this primarily to prove my thesis that music discovery is becoming increasingly more difficult. This is due in part to the enormous decrease in the costs of producing and distributing music, thanks in part to technology (for production) and the internet (for distribution). As a result there is much more music being produced than ever before and, not surprisingly, it is nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. You’d think that the internet would have solved this problem, but algorithms don’t turn people onto music, people do, and for the most part digital music hasn’t been very social up to now. With that said, this has been another stellar year for music. You should make a point to try it all.

1) Angus Stone – Broken Brights (Nettwerk)

I didn’t pay much attention to Angus & Julia Stone last year, so when I stumbled in to see Angus playing a gig supporting his new solo album I was woefully unprepared. As history will prove, I am a sucker for the warm modern but nostalgic music of today’s bearded neo-hippie indie folk scene (Fleet Foxes, Head and the Heart, Midlake). “Broken Brights” is far and away the album that has stuck with me most deeply.

Although, Stone is an Aussie, the 13 songs on this record are cut crisply from 70’s Americana lore. There are all sorts of obvious reference points from Neil Young (“Bird and the Buffalo”) to Dylan (“Monsters”) but there is nothing merely derivative here. The band, which features a lovely assortment of strings, brass, guitar and banjo, is just sublime. Every year there is one that raises above all others, and this year it is Angus Stone. This is that warm, woody music that will never feel out of time or place. Angus Stone

2) Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Ribbon Music)

Some music just gets under your skin. Alt-J is an acquired taste but once you turn onto it it sticks hard – like the first Violent Femmes record for a dated example. “An Awesome Wave” is a delicate, textured experiment in genre bending rock. There are quiet pianos, and soulful vocals, that come across almost like B-sides from a Windham Hill record juxtaposed with songs held together by a broad smattering of loops, blips, and drum lines that bounce around like bare feet on hot pavement.

A bit like Zappa filtered through a lava lamp, but every song here is sliced from the same pie in an impeccably produced series of soundscapes as potent as anything this year. From the edgy and beautiful “Dissolve Me” and “Fitzpleasure” to the pristine balladry on “Mathilda” or “Bloodflood.” Like Django Django, Alt-J runs the modern history of rock through a psychedelic sieve and comes up multi-colored roses. Alt-J

3) Django Django – Django Django (Ribbon Music)

As much as I love mellow countrified indie rock, my other real musical love is for groove based new wave music. This includes almost any music that probably uses the Velvet Underground as a starting point, passing through Pink Floyd en route to Radiohead. Django Django is one of two bands that broke through using that blueprint this year (the other being Alt-J).

The band is another in a series of great Scottish bands (The Beta Band, Hot Chip) that fuse incredibly catchy songwriting with approachable electronica. “Django Django” is a relentlessly upbeat album (“Default” and “Hail Bop”) although it is more light bursting through the shadows than beach music. It’s hard to resist the toe tapping beats, and bite sized chorus’ throughout, and they rarely give you time to catch your breath. Django Django

4) Polica – Give You The Ghost (Conveyor)

Polica’s singer Channy Leaneagh, a former member of Minneapolis supergoup Gayngs, and starring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is a legit star. Just watching her move on stage is something else, and then she starts to sing. On tracks like “Lay Your Cards Outs” and “Dark Star” you fall immediately into the smoothest grooves, with the double drum tracks steering gently towards something on a hazy horizon.

I first saw Polica at SXSW in 2012. I knew almost nothing about them, but the music felt immediately recognizable yet brand new. Like a torch passed from the great female vocalists from the 90’s (Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Frazier, and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards), trip hop it seems is again alive and well.  Polica

5) Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

Although it’s fair to describe “Swing Lo Magellan” as the Projectors most “accessible” album to date, it is still a challenging record. “Swing Lo Magellan” is truly a brilliant accomplishment: complicated, melodic, harmonious, discordant, catchy, and somber. It is the most unique “pop” record of the year by a city mile, bathed in lush instrumentation and Ivy League lyrics.

The band is the brainchild of Yale dropout David Longstreth, and what is most distinctive about Dirty Projectors music is both the ridiculously difficult guitar lines and tunings, and the incredible transitions. In the end what we get is a collage of sweet discovery (“Swing Lo Magellan” and “Impregnable Question”) mixed with strange pop incarnations like “Dance With You” and “About to Die.” It is a weird and wonderful joy. Dirty Projectors

6) Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again (ATO)

Not since the 70’s masterpieces by Curtis Mayfield, Issac Hayes, Rodriguez (and others), has there been a record this soulful and authentic. Kiwanuka is a 24 year old Brit with a voice as smooth as anything you are likely to hear. Discovered by The Bees Paul Butler, himself a musical revivalist, “Home Again” is an album of anachronistic magic, and old-fashioned modern soul.

Kiwanuka originally imagined himself primarily as a guitarist, but on instant classics like “Tell Me  Take” and “I’ll get Along” you hear Hendrix filtered through Van Morrison, silky and smooth. The production and instrumentation is a perfect compliment to the truly special magic that happens on “Home Again.” It doesn’t get much better. Michael Kiwanuka

7) Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (Jagjaguar)

I remember the first time I saw Jeff Buckley live, solo and plugged into a small amp at Sin-é Café on St. Marks in NYC. I had heard the tapes, but to see him live was to get the context that made it all make sense. I feel the same way about Sharon Van Etten. She is a blossoming genius with a heavenly voice, hugely personal lyrics and a presence that is both surprisingly whimsical yet profoundly intense.

Some artists write beautiful lyrics or music, others have voices like angels or devils, while others bleed passion and genius across a complete spectrum. But the very best of them transport us to a totally new place, they get hold of us and don’t let go until the last chord is strummed, the last lyric falls, leaving us longing for more. Sharon Van Etten is that rare combination of raw honesty and accessible emotion. Three albums into what will hopefully be a long career, Van Etten, has found a middle ground between the  precious, raw and spare “We Are Fine” and the  straight forward rock ““Serpents”. I’m in love. Sharon Van Etten

8) Foxygen – Take The Kids Off Broadway (Jagjaguar)

When two kids about a third the age of their apparent idols: Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and Nick Cave, reinterpret the 70’s, the result will either be disastrous or incredible.  “Take The Kids Off Broadway” is a brilliant breezy trip to the past channeled through something uniquely modern. If Wes Anderson were looking to score his movies with modern artists, Foxygen would be his house band.

On tunes like “Waitin’ 4 U” you are hurled back into a Stonesy state of mind, and a moment later on “Make it Known” it is more like  David Johansen’s New York Dolls swagger.  For most people born after 1965, this whole era of music was missed completely, which is a tragedy. Thanks to bands like MGMT and Foxygen, dirty, dirgy rock music is alive and well again. Foxygen

9) Tame Impala - Lonerism (Modular)

Australia’s Tame Impala is an old school, big time psychedelic rock band. From the very first chords on “Lonerism” (the sublime “Got to Be above It’) you feel transported back to an epic Pink Floyd show from an age long gone. Most of the band members were born a decade after “The Wall” but with a breadth of keys, swirling guitars and a steady baseline, everything just falls neatly into place despite the controlled cacophony.

To see the band live is to re/experience what a rock show used to be like: extended jams, trippy lights, and long improvisational moments of musical theater. Songs like “Elephant” thump and thud with an irresistible hard rock beat, while much of the rest of this minor masterpiece reflects the past through a two way mirror into the future. Tame Impala

10) Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)

Like the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear aspires to something well beyond conventional rock music. Their musical abilities have finally caught up with their ambition. Alternating between precious and raucous, the band refuses to play it straight and instead chooses a stranger road paved with unexpected transitions and odd tunings.

Occasionally they make it easy on the listener with tunes like “Yet Again” and “Gun Shy,” which seem to glide on a careful pop structure, filled with crystalline vocals exchanged among the band’s multiple vocalists. Other times they tend to push you into an entirely different direction, as in  “Sleeping Ute,” where the melodies explode into a wall of sound. “Shields” is a magical place, filled with magical players and sounds. Grizzly Bear [Read more…]