Thieves! – Run the Jewels

This past Christmas Day — or the 2nd night of Chanukah, or day before Kwanzaa or non-demoninationally, the 25th of December — Run the Jewels, one of the most innovative and important Hip-Hop duos in modern music released their long-awaited third album. For free (as a download). A month or more before it was expected in stores. I downloaded it yesterday and immediately played it from start to finish in my backyard studio, fulfilling my New Years’ resolution to listen to entire albums, not just single songs, in one sitting (or standing, or ideally, dancing) and without headphones.

I grew up listening to records. I spent hundreds of teenage hours hanging out in record shops like Licorice Pizza and Wherehouse and Tower and Record Trader and Moby Disc. Scouring the used shelves for hidden gems. I’d hurry home, arms filled with bags of albums, then spread them out on the shag carpet in my bedroom and carefully decide what to play first. I’d gently set the chosen record onto my Technics SL-23 turntable, making sure to keep my fingers to the vinyl’s edges. As the music played, I’d follow along with the liner notes or lyrics, interspersed with airdrumming/guitaring/saxophoning, and singing (once I knew the words, or knew them well enough) in full tuneless voice. And as soon as side A had finished it’s last note and before the stylus and needle could return back to the cradle, I’d already have the album flipped over, side B blasting away through my 36″ Yamaha speakers.

30 plus years later, I find myself listening, more often than not, to fairly compressed mp3 tracks, stored on a smartphone, through tiny, tinny earbuds. I know headphone technology has improved of late, but I’d already lost some of my attention to fidelity (surely some hearing loss as well), not to mention having allowed the power of “the album” fade away from my musical repertoire. I’d never let music fall by the wayside, but I’ve found that when I put on music nowadays, I’m always doing some other thing or things at the same time. Multitasking. Diluting my attention. Sending emails, tapping out texts, sitting at my desk at work, working out at the gym. Writing blog posts like this.

So, Run the Jewels 3, an album I’ve been eagerly anticipating, would represent the first of my 2017 musical promises. A self-prescribed form of therapy. Music had gotten me through so many awkward, jubilant, confusing, sad, celebratory moments in my life for as long as I can remember, and I decided it was time to up the dosage.

RTJ3 gobsmacked me right from the start. The layers of guitar samples, the bass-heavy beats, EL-P and Killer Mike’s dextrous, syncopated wordflow. It sounded as urgent as early Public Enemy and as sonically experimental. I am not a big fan of most modern rap; I find most of it overproduced, filled with macho braggadocio, and lazy. I grew up with old-school hip hop. Kurtis Blow, Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, Beastie Boys. Sure there was plenty of bragging, but it was (almost) always tongue in cheek and never mean. And there was often an impassioned political edge behind many of those hip hop classics. They didn’t shy away from the dark realities that these artists saw ripping apart their communities. Run the Jewels doesn’t necessarily sound “old school.” Though it’s clear they are influenced by artists like Chuck D. and KRS One, maybe Jay-Z. Their sound is not one of nostalgia. They are innovators and agitators, educators and instigators. It’s music that requires repeated listenings, not just to catch up with the lyrics but also because of the impeccable production of EL-P. I’ve listened to the entire thing twice now and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

With the 8th song on the album, “Thieves,” beginning with a sample from one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the eerily prescient “The Obsolete Man,” I knew this was gonna be the song for me to Warble. Watch the clip above and tell me it doesn’t send a chill down your spine. The parallels are eerie.Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio guests on the track, adding his vocals near the end. It’s not a conventional verse/chorus song, there’s some innovative playing around with form in “Thieves.” The song is an unflinching look at what African Americans have had to deal with in terms of police violence, systemic racism, and inner city struggle. It’s heavy but not heavy handed, it’s urgent but with perspective. It opens, like I said, with a quote from Rod Serling and then, at the end, audio from one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches rises above the beat. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” these last words ring out, giving the song a historical perspective, a context to place it in, as a song for protest.

Perhaps hyperbole, but I think it just might become a song for our times.

The Twilight Zone (We Have Entered)

twlightzonegifWe entered the twilight zone several months ago really, but 2017 appears primed to become the most surreal, insane, bat-shit crazy year in our collective history. How wonderful would it be to be completely wrong and be posting here in the Warbler 365 days from now, writing about how dull the previous year had been. How all our fears were unfounded and unnecessarily apocalyptic.

And with the start of a new year come new resolutions. One of mine is to attempt to write about a different song each day, or at least three times a week. Feel free to use tough love on me; I respond well to a swift (literal or figurative) kick in the ass when I start to slack off.

Rush released a 2-CD/1-DVD remastered reissue of their 1976 landmark album, 2112, a couple weeks ago, in honor of the 40th anniversary of its initial release. It includes (as explained in this unboxing video above) a bunch of extras, such as a never-before-released live concert of the entire 2112 album during that first tour. This, to me, is the best way to hear this being performed live, as Geddy Lee was able to hit the high notes back then.

But as much as I used to play side one of 2112 religiously back in my early teenage years, air-drumming along with complete abandon (setting up pillows as couch cushions in my youthful attempt to emulate Neil Peart’s massive drum kit), I played side two even more. And on the rare occasions that I play this album today, I usually skip to side two, which, to me, is far more musically rich and diverse than the 23 minute prog-rock self-titled side-one epic. None of the 5 songs are longer than 4 minutes, which no subsequent album ever matched in terms of brevity. It just might be the most un-proggy rock-n-roll album side in their discography. And the most diverse. There is a “world-music” song (“Train to Bangkok”), a ballad (“Tears”), an acoustic guitar featured mid-tempo track (“Lessons”), a hard-rocking anthem (“Something for Nothing”), and finally, the song that this post is named after, the moody, creepy tune “The Twilight Zone.”

4 of these 5 songs get interesting cover treatments on disc 2 of the reissue. Billy Talent (who I hadn’t heard of before this) performs my favorite of the interpretations, infusing “Train to Bangkok” with a post-punk Green Day-esque energy. Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson gives “Twilight Zone” a jazzy, delicate touch. And Alice in Chains does an admirable job with the quieter “Tears.” The only cover that doesn’t work so well is Jacob Moon’s “Something for Nothing” which turns the epic rocker into a lazy grunge cliche. It sounds more dated than the original.

So, I do think this reissue is worth purchasing for true Rush fans. For the rest of you, you probably stopped reading a couple paragraphs ago. You were probably thinking that I was going to write about Golden Earring’s 1984 hit song “Twilight Zone” which is surely a more relevant song to today’s current climate. Also, a more ear-wormy song. And there it goes – it’s now embedded like the bugs in BrainDead.

I love how popular this song became back in 1984, especially since Golden Earring had been around for almost 20 years already at the time. They broke into the New Wave scene old enough to be the fathers of the new New Wave generation. Were we simply more open minded back then? We did buy albums by other “dinosaur” bands like Asia and Yes (see my earlier posts on this concept) so maybe we were less caught up in “image” and “youth” back in the mid-80s. I think it probably had more to do with MTV and the heavy rotation of some videos. Or maybe it was the fantastic bass-line in this song. I could listen to that riff all day. Or perhaps it was the paranoia laced imagery in the lyrics.

Whatever it was or is, whether you prefer the proggy-stylings of Rush or the New Romantic tinged swagger of Golden Earring, it is undebatable that we have two classic songs to choose from to represent the Rod Serling-hosted TV series (which I still watch regularly) of the same name.

Or maybe it’s this song by Manhattan Transfer that turns you on. It is a new year and we need to accept all of our unique differences….

Best Music of 2016 – International

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I just couldn’t use the word “World” to represent the music of non-north American or British lands. I know International is no better, perhaps I should have chosen “Global.” I dunno. Either way, to limit the best music of the year to 5 songs, covering 90 percent of the globe is silly in its own right. Not to mention the fact that I have hardly even listened to a fraction of a percent of the world music released in 2016. But I did listen to some of it, mostly from Latin America & Africa; really this post should be titled, Best Music of 2016 – mostly Latin America & West Africa. But I’m not gonna do that, because then I’d have to cut out this entire paragraph. And I need to finish this post by tonight so I can move on to songs by Tony Orlando & Dawn and Barry Manilow and how they have their own special ear-worm craters in my brain. Get ready 2017!

 

Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Tres Palabras 

I wasn’t going to include a live album, but when you have a release, Dois Amigos, Um Secolo de Musica, featuring two of the most influential and important musicians of all the world, not just in their native Brazil, it warrants inclusion on a list such as this. I had the pleasure of seeing both of them in concert during the past 5-10 years, but never together, and I still kick myself for missing their local performance earlier this year. But now I get to hear it whenever I want, and the recording sounds great, capturing their genial, passionate spirit.

Orkesta Mendoza – Caramelos

This probably shouldn’t qualify, as Orkesta Mendoza is from Tucson, Arizona. But I only learned that today, and if I had been told they were from Cuba, I would have believed it. In fact, band leader Sergio Mendoza had been the main force behind a tribute band honoring Cuban mambo king Perez Prado before forming before Orkesta. So, the resume holds up. “Caramelos” is definitely more rockin’ than most of the other songs on their 2016 release Vamos A Guarachar, but it does capture their unique energy quite well.

Rokia Traore – Ilè

Rokia Traore is an international treasure. She’s soulful, graceful, funky, sleek, raw and 100 other descriptors all in one. I stupidly didn’t go see her perform at the SFJazz this fall, as I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, but that’s about as lame an excuse as there is. I guess, since I’d seen her at the tiny Ashkenaz club in Berkeley a few years ago for 12 dollars, paying 55 to see her at a much further distance was less appealing. But she’s so good, she can captivate a stadium. My bad. Her 2016 album, Ne So, was a bit quieter than her previous releases, but her take on Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” brought back the original’s chilling power. It’s one of 2016’s best albums.

Konono No. 1 – Kinsumba

I chose this song from their 2016 album, Meets Batida, mainly because it is has some more experimental touches than usual. It captures their organic, hypnotic sound but adds some interesting production touches by Batida. If you like this, get the entire album. In fact, get all their albums. Everyone of them is fantastic.

Baaba Maal – Fulani Rock

Baaba Maal has been making music since the 1980s and is a bonafide World music superstar, especially in his native Senegal. He could easily rest on his laurels and put out generic, pleasing records for the rest of his life and go down as one of the greats. But, thankfully, Baaba didn’t do that on his 2016 album, The Traveller. Though clearly more modern sounding than most of his earlier music, with electronic touches, the songwriting has a distinctively grounded, primal quality. It feels vital and from the heart, even if not bound by a unified sound. “Fulani Rock” is the first track, and easily the most upbeat song on the album, maybe the most “cross-over” but that’s not a bad thing. A great song is a great song no matter the clear influences.

Best of 2016 – Country(ish)

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In country music, it’s all about the songwriting and THE VOICE. And in 2016, the ladies ruled the Country roost. Margo Price is the newbie in the list, having released her excellent debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in 2016. She’s got THE VOICE, the perfect blend of grit, twang and feeling. It’s one of those things that’s hard to quantify but you know it when you hear it. It’s a sound that Elizabeth Cook has in spades. To quote the inestimable Randy Jackson: I can listen to her sing the phonebook. Hopefully her next album is a little less over produced. Miranda Lambert has never really been my cup of tea. Until now. She’s sounded more like New Country to me, a bit too slick and unrelatable. But maybe her divorce from Blake Shelton awoke her old-country spirit, as she sounds rejuvenated here. Shovels & Rope are the perfect blend of The White Stripes and June and Johnny Cash. The married duo’s voices blend into a singular whole, the stripped down drums and fuzzed guitar instrumentation, especially on songs like “Botched Execution,” perfectly bring these songs to organic life. The entire 2016 album Little Seeds is strong. Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones I wrote about here, so I won’t repeat myself, but their new classics on their debut album are all great, but “Better at Lying” was the “country-est” of the lot, so I picked this one.

I had to leave out a couple of Hall-of-Famers to keep it to top 5, but I wanted to mention that both Loretta Lynn and John Doe both released excellent albums in 2016. (Update: had to add Loretta in at #6)

 

Margo Price – About to Find Out

Elizabeth Cook – Exodus of Venus

Miranda Lambert – Highway Vagabond

Shovels & Rope – Johnny Come Outside

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Better at Lying

honorable mention: (I couldn’t leave LL out)

Loretta Lynn – Whispering Sea

 

 

Best Music of 2016 – Soft Rock

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This sort of overlaps a little bit with the Pop category, but not really. This is more of a singer-songwriter category, except that 2 of my 5 picks are not solo artists. Well, that’s not entirely true. Young Gun Silver Fox is essentially one person, but there are other musicians involved too. Either way, these songs should be perfect for playing before sleep, or when you want to unwind after a long day. Hopefully you have an affinity for such artists as Hall & Oates, Seals & Crofts and Jim Croce (like I do!) as those are my touchstones for choosing these 5.

Blind Pilot – Joik #3

I don’t know if this song adheres to the rules of the Joik (which I just learned is a Nordic traditional music style of the Sami people), but if it does, I’m gonna have to go out and find some Joik records, stat. “Joik #3,” by Blind Pilot is simply lovely and has a sweet melody and lush harmony vocals that get me all teary-eyed every time I hear it. My natural cynical self gets suffocated when it plays. Blind Pilot gets lumped into the pseudo-Americana genre of bands like Of Monsters and Men and Mumford & Sons, which I normally can’t stand, but a good song is a good song and so it makes my list.

Ben Watt – Fever Dream

Ben Watt (formerly of Everything But the Girl) has been on a roll lately. He’s released solo records since EBtG broke up in the late 90s, but with 2014’s Hendra and now this year with Fever Dream, Ben has hit a new stride, having paired up with Suede guitarist Bernard Butler for these past two albums. I guess you could call this soft rock for Gen-Xers. Which is all good with me. I could have chosen any song on Fever Dream to pick here, but the self-titled track captures Watt’s sound as good as any other, so here you go.

Young Gun Silver Fox – You Can Feel It

YGSF is Shawn Lee and Andy Platts, and if they really wanted to get noticed for their spot-on Seals & Crofts meets Christopher Cross late 70s soft-rock sound, they would have called their project Lee & Platts. But they will surely never reach their true heights with the YGSF name. Shawn Lee has been playing keys for another 70s style band (AM – resembling a softer ELO) that I have been a fan of for years, so I have kept up with his side projects, which this one might be his best. “You Can Feel It” when you listen to this, the perfect soft rock song of 2016. If you have been longing for a new Seals & Crofts album, or maybe a Michael McDonald album, wait no longer and go get the Young Gun Silver Fox album. They could use the money.

Eleanor Friedberger – He Didn’t Mention His Mother

Eleanor Friedberger released her latest album, New View, back in January, but it has remained in my regular album rotation all year. No other 2016 album has felt so genuinely of a whole for me; I rarely just play one song at a time. Friedberger captures the Laurel Canyon sound and feeling but imbues it with a modern twist. The songs here sound comfortably familiar and yet at the same time musically surprising.

RY X – Deliverance

I actually thought this was the artist Rhye when I first heard this song. Then I thought maybe it was the XX. So it makes sense that the name of this artist (Australian singer Ry Cumming) is RY X. I doubt he chose that name because I think he sounds like a combination of those two other singers, but one never knows how things are decided in this wacky world. I love the atmospheric vibe to this song…the moody keys, the metallic sounding percussion…it’s a great song to chill to, to play before bed, to end a 5 song post with….

 

 

Best Music of 2016 – 80’s Metal Revisited

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This might be my most polarizing sub-genre listing here. I was going to write about my favorite hard rock/metal songs of 2016, and there are plenty (most folks don’t know that I have a not-so-hidden love for the head-banging), but one thing I realized while going through my list of albums released in 2016 was how many hard-rock bands whose heyday was in the ’80s put out great stuff this year. I mean, look at this list: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Anvil, Ace Frehley (Kiss), The Cult, Suicidal Tendencies, Whitford/St. Holmes (Aerosmith offshoot)….I could go on. It was a sad year for the rock world in terms of how many great musical icons passed, but that didn’t stop the world from rockin’ in 2016. Here’s 5 of my favorite songs that prove that the ’80s never ended, they just wrinkled and botoxed a little bit.

Ace Frehley – Emerald (Featuring Slash)

I am not a big Kiss fan. Sure I dig “Detroit Rock City” and “Rock and Roll All Night.” But even as a long-haired, hesher, suburban 15 year old, I never really “got” Kiss. But Ace Frehley was always a decent enough guitar player, and apparently has great musical taste, as he does a stellar job covering the great Thin Lizzy on his latest tribute album, Origins – Vol. 1 (I assume another volume is coming). And choosing Slash to play lead was a great choice; the key to being a true musician is knowing when someone else might be a better fit for a song than oneself and this song works in large part due to Slash’s great fretwork.

 

Anthrax – Defend Avenge

I actually have found more to like on the last couple of Anthrax albums than pretty much all of their earlier, more acclaimed albums. (Although their cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” was amazing.)  I think maybe there’s a maturity or a clearer sense of what sort of band they are now. In the past there were always great songs, but entire albums didn’t hold up. Now the songs really feel fleshed out and more dynamic than ever. Both louder and quieter. And I love me some dynamics.

 

Dream Theater – Dystopian Overture

The youngsters of this list, Dream Theater does qualify as an ’80s band in that their debut was released in 1989. I picked this one because it best captures the place where prog-rock meets metal, with supreme levels of bombast and over-the-topness. Also I wanted to pick two songs for this list with the word “dystopia” in it. And I thought an instrumental interlude in the middle of these 5 songs would be a nice palette cleanser.

 

Megadeth – Dystopia

Megadeth were always the ugly stepsister to Metallica. Even though guitarist/vocalist Dave Mustaine was an original Metallican, his offshoot, though successful in their own right, never reached the heights of his ex band-mates and I have read that this drove him nuts back in the day. I expect he’s gotten over it, 30 plus years later, and if he has any residual animosity, he can bask in the fact that his band has put out the stronger album of 2016, (re)capturing the 80s crunch, grit and excess that I know and love.

 

Anvil – Daggers and Rum

Oh boy. How do I express how happy this song makes me feel? Anvil are the real-life Spinal Tap, but somehow even better in many ways. They have at least 15 albums to keep all of us corny metal snaggle-toothed rockers satisfied. They’ve released at least 50 genius, hilarious head-banging sing-along songs over the past 25 years, but IMO none more fun than this pirate-metal tune, “Daggers and Rum.” They keep the lyrical content simple, allowing for screaming along to. A sample lyric:

Upon the seven seas/We are the dread                                                                                                  We shackle our foes and keelhaus’ em dead                                                                                     Walk the plank/Fall in the sea                                                                                                                  Food for the sharks/Your destiny                                                                                                    Scurvy Scum/Daggers and Rum/Daggers and Rum/Daggers and Rum

Sing along and enjoy!

 

Grand Magus – Varangian

OK – one more. I just can’t leave the next song out. I love the anthemic-warrior sub-metal genre, that really began with the great Manowar back in 1981. Now we have the inestimable Grand Magus to take their place. I just love metal that doesn’t take itself seriously and plays up the super manly, muscle-bound loincloth look. It’s so ridiculous and so fantastic. We are warriors! Defenders of steel! Fight through our wars, hunger and need!

Their 2016 album is called Sword Songs, so if you like this, there’s 8 more tracks just like it waiting for you.

 

Best Music of 2016 – (Power) Pop Songs

Not sure how to define POP. It used to be a label given to schmaltzy vocal artists like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Neil Sedaka. It has since been co-opted by a certain segment of the “alternative” crowd, bands and artists with a deeper focus on melody than edge. Most likely the term originated back in 1978, with XTC’s ground-breaking, off-kilter debut album, White Music, on the song “This is Pop.” My guess is that, since, at the time, Pop — as a label — was taken by the vocalists our parents’ listened to, the term “power-pop” was born. Bands like Big Star and The Raspberries and Badfinger suddenly were thrust into this new genre. The main influence clearly being the Beatles, but with more angular, punk or new-wave highlights. Bands like XTC, Cheap Trick, Squeeze and The Posies helped solidify Power-Pop as a legit sub-genre. And although power-pop is still used today, shortening it to “Pop” is also common. Though some people do think of crappy top-40 artists when they hear the term Pop, so I sometimes stick with the full Power-Pop even when a song, like most of these in my list below, are less power and more pop. I would say that my requirements for a pop-song are: a catchy, hummable chorus, a heavy dollop of piano, strings, acoustic guitar or, ideally, all 3. The vocals must not be gritty, and you should be able to understand the lyrics on first listen. Almost always, the song will be in a minor key and exude a feeling of wistfulness and/or nostalgia in the listener. The below 5 songs do all of these to perfection.

Fruit Bats – Humbug Mountain Song

This song has been an earworm for me on many a 2016 occasion. Not the lyrics really, but the repeating guitar/piano refrain. This fits all of the above pop-song checkmarks. With the added plus of Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson’s perfectly nasal, John Lennon-esque vocals. The Bats’ 2016 release Absolute Loser was a top 20 album of the year for me.

Look Park – Minor is the Lonely Key

Look Park is the brainchild of Chris Collingwood, co-founder of Fountains of Wayne, perhaps one of the more iconic power-pop bands in recent memory. Adam Schlesinger, the other FoW co-founder has gone on to write for TV, movies and the theater and has been the more visible of the two. Until 2016, when Look Park released their debut album and opened for Squeeze on their world tour. This sounds a lot like FoW, but with even more polish, which took me a couple listens to come to terms with the slickness, recognizing the great songwriting beneath the sheen.

Case Lang & Veirs – Atomic Number

Boy, I could listen to Neko Case every day for the rest of my life and never get sick of her voice. And to add K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs? It’s almost unfair how good these songs are. Of course, for me, the Case songs are the most arresting, with Atomic Number sounding like it could have been an outtake from her amazing 2013 album, The Worse Things Get… Not sure what else to say other than, listen to it and bask in its greatness.

Night Moves – Carl Sagan

I really know nothing about Night Moves, other than what I’m about to look up right now…the Minneapolis band formed in 2010 in high school (!) with the desire to meld 70’s rock with country twang. Not sure I hear much country twang in this song, which I first heard on MPR’s Song of the Day podcast. It sounds to me like a blend of ELO and….why don’t you tell me what else you hear…maybe a little Steely Dan? Maybe something more modern? MGMT’s first album?

Nada Surf – Believe You’re Mine

What I said about Fruit Bats, ditto for this insanely catchy pop song. This one has the added touch of tons of backup harmony vocals. And actual strings too. I think it’s about being in love with the wrong person, the sort of person who sucks all self-identity out of you and keeps you just close enough to keep you hopeful. This could be the song that captures this Pop/Power-Pop sound best.