Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Totally Unauthorized: 2013 Album of the Year Awards

How great of a year was 2013? Here's a quick and easy barometer for you: if you like hip hop, if you like to dance, or if you enjoy seeing your favorite band from 20 years ago get back together, odds are this was an incredible music year for you.

All told, 2013 was possiby the best music year of the decade yet. It will be an interesting conversation this time next year, when we hit the midway point of the decade.   Hip hop was one of the inarguable winners, with key releases from Run the Jewels, Danny Brown, Pusha T, and of course the impossible to ignore Yeezus.

But the year also boasted one of the best classes of newcomers in years. Dance duo Disclosure, all female post punkers Savages, all sister pop trio Haim, and Irish synth pop newbies Chvrches headed up a staggering freshman class. Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt wowed us all with his long awaited major label debut, while Matthew Barnes tripped us out with nostalgic electronic under the name Forest Swords.

In other trends, 2013 was easily the year of the comeback. Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine, and even the mythical Neutral Milk Hotel made their grand returns to the fore this year, but perhaps no artist reappearance was more unexpected than David Bowie, who dropped the excellent The Next Day in March.

But it didn't end there. Daft Punk, Queens of the Stone Age, and Mazzy Star released new work after long layoffs, while the year end saw a reemergence from Outkast and even Garth Brooks. Stars this year proved there's no better way to build buzz and fill thier register drawers than by a well executed comeback.

As I do each year, here are my picks for some miscellaneous categories, followed by the list.

Most Disappointing Album of 2013
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

After a threesome of impressive records, including their out of left field turn toward dancepop on 2009's It's Blitz, the Brooklyn rockers ran out of steam on latest. The came across like a band that's gotten too old for their scene, leaving many wondering what directions are still open to them at this point in their career. 
Most Overrated Album
Kanye West

You knew it had to be this. After building a career around the concept of being polarizing, West drops argubaly the most divisive record of the decade. It's a good album, and deserves credit for pushing industrial/noise/whatever rap into the mainstream eye. But there's a failed experiment for every moment of brilliance, which makes most of slavish praise and album of the year nods seem a bit over the top. 

Best New Artist

This category was razor thin between Disclosure and Savages. I have no clue which artist will go on to provide us with a more fruitful career, but it's really a win/win scenario either way, right? Disclosure got the nod for being more fun to listen to, for its great collaborations, and those undeniable beats. 

Song of the Year 
Patty Griffin
Go Wherever You Wanna Go 

Written in the wake of her father's death, folk singer Patty Griffin employs all the hand crafted turns of phrase that will tug at your heart strings and make you feel like you knew the man. This song is on another level.  

25. Kvelertak - Meir

Kvelertak's sophomore release spotlights one type of sound that was conspicuously absent from 2013: swaggering, good time rock and roll. Meir is steeped heavily in the metal traditions of their native Norway, but is also rife with the sounds of blues, metal, and classic 70s rock and roll.

24. Forest Swords - Engravings

Cold, industrial, but still highly organic, Engravings is one of those records that rings out like echoes from the past, creating a sense of longing about things lost long ago, but still maintains an overall sound that pleases present day sensibilities.

23. Paul McCartney - New

One of rock's most transcendent figures releases a great new album doing what he's always done, but this time he's got four different producers to make sure he does his damage in different ways.

22. Arctic Monkeys - AM

Alex Turner and the boys are up to no good as usual, but this time they've got some slick R&B grooves to power one of the year's best guitar rock records.

21. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

This Scottish synth pop trio have managed to release the best 80s pop album of the year. But more captivating than their sound is the sense of determination and passion that they pour into it. In addition: Lauren Mayberry is just too damn cute.

20. Deerhunter - Monomania

Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter were on a clear shoegaze coated trajectory for the better part of their career. That all changed with their fifth LP, Monomania, a brash celebration of all things America proudly coated an inch thick in dive bar grime. Behold Bradford Cox's rambling traveling narrative on "Pensacola," the raucous junkyard crunch of "Leather Jacket II," or the chilling brilliance of "Nitebike." Deerhunter not only wears the label of one of today's best bands, but also one of the most unpredictable.

19. My Bloody Valentine - MBV

I was really, really enamored with this album when it first came out,  especially so considering I didn't have much of a history with the band and never listened to Loveless that much. Unfortunately, this was one of the albums I started to get bored with as the year progressed, yet looking back now it's hard to argue its status as one of the year's landmark albums. There are no major surprises, but there is plenty of energetic drum work, loopy synthesizer experiments, and, of course, plenty of Kevin Shield's haze filled instrumental soundscapes.

18. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P, the two emcees behind Run the Jewels, both cracked the top 5 of last year's list with their respective solo releases, and their first collaborative record is brash, confrontational, and is another undeniable gem as well. El-P's beats are a little more subtle here than what he's done in the past, but Mike's intensity will force you to show respect.


17. Bad Religion - True North

Aging artists tend to talk a pretty good game when it comes to making a return to form album. Then there is Bad Religion, whose latest record not only captures the spirit of their early material but actually rivals it. Anyone who's heard Suffer, No Control, or Against the Grain knows what to expect, yet it's still revitalizing to hear that they still have a record like this in them. Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz, meanwhile, unleash their ire on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to the degradation of American education.

16. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

The first post reunion album from Nine Inch Nails is much quieter and more restrained than its predecessors, but it works because Trent Reznor finds plenty of ways to work with the quiet space and gentle ambiance. Aside from "Copy of A," there aren't too many songs here I get that excited about on their own merits but played from start to finish, it's remarkable how well these tracks work with one another. Whether it's the damning violin in "Disappointed," the muted mechanical tinkering on "In Two," or the bold uplifting chorus of "Various Methods of Escape," Reznor has done a terrific job of crafting an album that is much more the the sum of its parts.

15. Kanye West - Yeezus

Hands down the most hotly debated/talked about album of the year, and a #1 pick for many publications. A fair listen to Yeezus should be enough to convince a great many listeners that isn't the year's best. In fact, there are too many outright bad tracks here for it to even be top 10.  Yet Yeezus is bringing elements to the fore that haven't been heard in mainstream music in possibly ever, and the first four tracks are about as strong of an opening as I've heard on any album this year. 

14. The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

There is no shortage of longtime listeners of The Knife who had problems with the duo's latest album. To be fair, it is incredibly arty and obtuse in places, but it also in many ways is a work of arresting brilliance. Tired of formulaic music? Shaking the Habitual is about as far from a formula as you can get. Their previous release, 2006's Silent Shout, was weird but accessible, but everything was more or less laid out on the surface. The sugarcoated dream lands are few and far between here, however, as Karin Driejer Andersson and Olof Andersson cull the deepest recesses of our subconscious, crafting sounds that play on fears and anxieties locked away in deepest recesses of our subconscious, while weaving in a minor political theme regarding social customs in their native Sweden. Too much for some to swallow, no doubt, but what's brilliant about Shaking the Habitual is you never know where it will go next.

13. Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

Doris is the type of album that sucks you in the more you listen to it. On initial blush, it's clear that the production is album's strength. Hazy and dreamlike, it's easy to find some situation where you just want to slip away into some chilled out, mellow beats. Earl's delivery is usually pretty understated, but rather than being a detriment as some have claimed, it actually suits the album almost perfectly. Earl is calm, collected and thoughtful, but able to show you the strains he is under. It's not intended to make you feel sorry for him, but to get you to respect his inner strength. 

12. HAIM - Days are Gone

What HAIM is doing isn't new or original, but they do make damn fun and carefree pop, and do it better than just about anyone else at the moment. The vocal interplay between the sisters can be staggering, most notably during the title track's middle eight, or on the acid tinged tones of "My Song 5." But one of the biggest triumphs is that it is like a musical blender -- the Haim sisters weave together a diverse array of styles and influences a make it work out fantastically.

11. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Few albums from this year have been as thoroughly disassembled as Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, and opinions vary wildly over the French dance duo's fourth album. Yet once you cut through all the hype, it's difficult to deny that Random Access Memories is solid from top to bottom, and is among the year's most ambitious recording projects. The highly sought after duo let their EDM roots fall by the wayside, opting for a bold approach toward 70s disco that paid off in spades. Meanwhile, guests such as Pharrell, Animal Collective's Panda Bear, and Paul Williams did more than just add a slew of fancy names to the guest list -- they delivered legitimate awesome performances that rounded out Daft Punk's sound and helped make this one of the year's best albums.

10. Deafheaven - Sunbather

Arguing over its status as a black metal album, or even whether it's metal at all, seems to me to be beside the point. I'll admit this: when I'm in the mood for metal, Sunbather isn't the record I'm going to reach for. When I do play Sunbather it's going to be because I want to listen to that record specifically, which I think is much higher praise. "Windows" surely must have been inspired by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III." Deep, dark, wandering, and exploratory. It's extremely dense but always offers something new to jump out on each repeated listen. If you have any interest in music like that at all, there's really no one who did that better than Sunbather.

9. Patty Griffin - American Kid

This album has plenty of songs that break me down. It's something about the way her voice rings out, and the power behind it, that cuts through me. This is Griffin's seventh album (discounting Silver Bell), and is perhaps her most personal to date, focusing on stories of her father and her link with family. She offers a few stylistic detours here and there, but when you deliver passion like this people will follow you en masse.

8. VV Brown - Samson & Delilah

What a difference an album makes. It was always evident Brown had immense talent, but Samson & Delilah marks her first true artistic statement. The generically catchy pop of her last album had merit, but on initial blush everything seems to have changed between this album and the last. Dark, futuristic, hazy R&B replaces the 50s and 60s influence of Travelling Like the Light, sounding bold and passionate and frightening at the same time. Even the way she sings is different, dropping her Northampton accent for a deep and imposing contralto. What hasn't changed, though, is the infectiousness and mastery of hooks. "The Apple," along with the title track are the type of songs Top 40 radio wish they had the balls to play.

7. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

Monae's second album advances the storyline of wacked out android Cindi Mayweather, but it's not the concept that sells this album for me. The Electric Lady will be remembered for its indelible sense of the funky; it knows how to be zany in just the right way. The first suite is packed with high energy dance tracks with an overwhelming sense of individuality. The second suite was harder to get into, but ringing cuts like "Victory" are also songs that show off the tremendous raw power of her voice. She also weaves in themes of rising from tough times/street life on cuts like "Ghetto Woman" and "Electric Lady," while championing feminist causes on "Sally Ride." Few albums recently have been as effective at making you kick up your heels, dance, and sing along, while also forcing you to think.

6. Savages - Silence Yourself

In 2013, Silence Yourself was that was scary, gritty, and dangerous album in a year that was somewhat lacking in that department. It took an all girl band to make one of the records that had the most balls of this year.  Just when the album seems to be tapering off, it hits you with an incredible burst of energy of some of frontwoman Jhenny Beth's most frantic and frenzied screeching and shrieking. Guitarist is capable of gentle brushstrokes and jagged edge riffing, while the rhythm section churns and gurgles like an industrial strength factory. The tempo relaxes a bit during the middle part of the album, but it opens and closes with a bang, and their message of defiance will be one that continues to reverberate within your earlobes.

5. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

The 80s are often maligned for the being the progenitor of a lot of largely disposable new wave. But Arcade Fire have made a record that is this diverse, and pulls influences from so many corners of the 80s that with Reflektor, they have subtly but powerfully made the case that perhaps this decade is much more nuanced that many of us have been willing to give it credit for. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a mind like James Murphy at work, and perhaps it's no coincidence that Reflktor offers a sharp left turn from the triumvirate of Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs.

At first, I thought the album was inconsistent, but the more I listened, the more I appreciated the diversity that each track offered. The raging Jamaican feel of "Here Comes the Night Time, the frenzied group shout along of "Joan of Arc," along with the heavy 80s synthesizer vibe of "We Exist" are all among the top music moments of the year. Reflektor is one of the deepest, most varied, and challenging albums of recent memory, and no doubt one we'll be discussing for some time.

4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

When listening to some of Vampire Weekend's earlier work, it often sounded like something made by a super smart Ivy League grad who wanted to make sure you knew how smart he was. Modern Vampires of the City, conversely, sounds like a record that could only be made by someone with the brilliance of Ezra Koening, and he is employing his genius to craft something we wouldn't have been able to enjoy otherwise. Rife with religious, historical, and intellectual references, the album sounds like something that could have been dreamed up after an all day study session in a university library. But it also represents the most overt maturation process in the band's history.

For a long time, Vampire Weekend have teetered dangerously on the precipice of genius and irrelevance. Modern Vampires is a legitimate turning the corner album for the band, and one that we're as fortunate to have as they are. They stagger the senses with their sense of imagination. Within each song, Koening is able to paint a short story about some type of character, setting, or event and make you feel like you were actually there with them, if only for a moment or two.

3. Disclosure - Settle

Do you like beats? You'd better, because English duo Guy and Howard Lawrence have what you need to keep your booty moving. Unlike some of their contemporaries, they don't overwhelm you with a wall of synth and they don't craft dream covered soundscapes. But they do pump out the BPM you need to dance, dance, dance, into the early morning hours. Settle is a great mix of British dancefloor club beats along with shimmering electronic pop songs that never lose their danceclub sensibilities. Sounds fresh, stimulating, and like they're having a great time. Many of their pieces, including "Tenderly," and "Stimulation" show an emphasis on 90s throwback with the ecstatic vocal samples.

They also have a thing for collaboration. They have snuck in some of the best electronic pop songs of the year, "White Noise" and "You and Me," which will stand out to fans of synthpop, and pop music in general, but these have a definite dancefloor philosophy ingrained into them. Then you have the demented "Confess to Me," featuring soul singer Jessie Ware, along with the bold and majestic song with London Grammar, the closest the duo have come to mounting an answer to Orbital's "Halcyon + On + On."

I'm not too much into dance music, but these songs have a freshness and creativity in them that gives them a broad appeal, along with the fact that they pay enough attention to melody to make these songs great bangers for the club or in the car. I haven't heard a dance album I liked this much since Orbital's In Sides.

2. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

Queens of the Stone Age began significantly modifying their sound on 2007's Era Vulgaris after four rock heavy records in a row, but never have they pulled it off like this. Coming off a six year hiatus, Josh Homme took his creative offspring in his hands and redefined everything we thought we knew about this band.  The grooving riff rockers are there, to be sure. Lead single "My God is the Sun," along with "I Sat by the Ocean," are two of the tastiest rock songs the year has to offer. Yet the album's other eight cuts paint a much different picture. There is a move toward the manly piano power ballad territory, the type of song the band has rarely written, but also the type of song a singer like Homme was always meant to sing.

His gentle, lilting croon easily carries the day through "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and the album's title track, creating rare tear jerking moments in the band's catalog. The experimentation doesn't stop there, however. Rollicking, Elton John piano rockers and Trent Reznor inspired sexual dreamscapes also push QOTSA's sound in directions rarely hinted at. ...Like Clockwork is one of those rare albums where every track is a bonafide winner. Homme and crew's ability to pull off this many styles and do it as well as they've done makes Like Clockwork one of the year's best albums.

1. Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing

I did not know what to expect from this album leading up to its release. Wilson has long numbered among one of my all time favorites since his days with Porcupine Tree, but his last few releases had been somewhat disappointing. His third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, saw a major overhaul affecting everything from album's thematic concept to the backing band behind him. His previous release, 2011's Grace for Drowning, presented a more churning, chaotic, King Crimson pattern of attack, while his latest mellows out the vibe considerably and gives the songs room to breathe. One of the best decisions Wilson made to was to give the album a theme and structure each song around a story about ghosts or supernatural elements.

And while thematic concepts in popular music don't always work out or tend to get overlooked,  it actually provided the perfect foil for Wilson, as well as a great framing device. It's no secret that there's plenty of meaningless lyrics these days, but he proves it doesn't have to be overly cerebral or politicized to get the job done. The cast of musicians surrounding him also enable him to explore new musical territory. Guitar magician Guthrie Govan can scorch you with the power of his solos, but also knows how to slowly wind out a passage and allow a solo to develop nice and slowly. Also notable are the clashing cymbals of new drummer Marco Minneman drive the madness up to the 11th degree, while Michael Shuman deploys basslines capable of carrying songs by themselves.

Some say that Wilson is too into hero worship, and discount much of his solo work on those grounds, but I don't care. I love the way Wilson presents the material, with the bleak, dissonant atmosphere that he has been perfecting ever since his Porcupine Tree days.

Raven is an album that amazes in every phase of the game, but what I like best about it is that every song excels at something different. From the crazed jazz fusion of "The Pin Drop," to the spacey ethereal wash of "Drive Home," the fluid, flowing bassline and blitzing guitar solos of "Luminol," or the magical soul tinged title track, Wilson has pulled off a dazzling turnaround and released an album with vivid musicianship and plenty of food for thought.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 25 live shows of 2013

Let me begin by saying that this is easily the best concert year I've ever had in my life, and I don't expect this to be topped. 2012 got the ball rolling with plenty of great acts, which led me to attempt to up the ante this year. I succeeded, and then some. Here are the best 25 I saw this year:


25. Ty Segall Band

January 28 at The End

This show deserves a mention if for no other reason than for just how rowdy it was. It's probably lucky no one was hurt, but seeing as no one did it presents a fascinating case study on the type of impact an environment like this can have on a rock show. Broken bottles had to be swept from the stage, a massive Hispanic kid tried to stage dive directly on top of me, and I had to be hoisted over the side railing just to get back to the bar area. Ty Segall pulled off a rare sellout at The End, and had the place busting at the seams with sludgy garage rock influenced by everyone from Black Sabbath to Iggy and the Stooges.

24. Run the Jewels

July 16 at Exit/In

When you combine one of the boldest, most outspoken emcees with one of today's most free thinking producers (who also happens to kill it on a mic), it makes for a one-two hip hop combo that's hard to top by anyone, anywhere. Killer Mike and El-P even had guys in the crowd with cardboard cutouts of their faces taped to the end of wooden sticks,  and invited them onstage. Mike's intensity combines with El-P's face shredding beats to create arguably the best hip hop act touring the club circuits right now. For those who aren't sold on sitting in a dank arena for Kendrick, Drake or Yeezy, Run the Jewels is your best bet.

23. Wilco

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Wilco has consistently been billed among the best live bands for well over a decade, and it's simple to see why. Their Friday night pre-headlining set at Bonarroo had all the elements of a great rock show. Jeff Tweedy showcased himself as a relatable and  clever frontman, while guitarist Nels Cline let loose with ample amounts of rock shreddery, not to mention a back catalog that boasts plenty of influential, game changing tunes from their late 90s/early 2000s output. If that wasn't enough, they even brought out alt-country brethren Calexico onto stage for a ravishing guest spot for a song or two.

22. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

June 13 at Bonnaroo

She's not well known, but knows how to put on a good time. Imagine a gritty, southern rock sound coupled with Bluhm's impressive set of pipes, which also features great classic rock guitar soloing to boot. It's the kind of music designed to get you set to head to the bar and kick your good for nothing man to the curb.

21. Megadeth

September 5 at Bridgestone Arena

Unfortunately, their opening set for Iron Maiden at Bridgestone Arena didn't deliver the type of spectacle these Bay Area headbangers are known for putting on. Despite their extensive back catalog, they rushed through a short set that didn't even touch the hour mark. The only pause came before the final song, when Dave Mustaine delivered a few short remarks on the conflict in Syria. Yet it's still hard to argue with the pure headbanging power of "Hangar 18" or the god-tier soloing on "Tornado of Souls."

20. Of Monsters and Men

June 14 at Bonnaroo

For a relatively new band, Icelanidc indie pop folk band Of Monsters and Men have set a solid foundation for live shows for years to come. With only one album out, there's not much pomp, flair, or elaborate stage setups, but what comes across best is the demeanor of the band. Onstage they're all so easy going and laid back, and it makes it easy to feel endeared to the band and their material.  They played their album My Head is an Animal in full, while also impressively transforming Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Skeletons" into a mellowed out, deep sea submerged sounding version of an old Icelandic folk tune.

19. Bad Religion

March 20 at War Memorial Auditorium

Anyone with any interest in punk whatsoever should revel in frontman Greg Graffin's tales of the San Fernando valley scene the band came up in and the slam dancers they once played in front of. This set would have been a couple of notches higher had I not accidentally gotten balcony tickets, where the energy level was lethargic. But it was easy to see the kids on the main floor were in a frenzy. Bad Religion's influence runs wide and deep, and they tore through a career spanning setlist that featured everything from their old school hardcore hits to their newer, more melodic driving rock sound.

18. Menomena

February 23 at Mercy Lounge

This Portland based indie rock duo put on a great sing along performance with a very clever and unique songwriting style. The best part is that it's hard to know where their songs are going to end up when they start. The music is predicated on a great sense of rhythm from drummer Danny Seim, while frontman Justin Harris keeps the crowd on their toes by switching between bass and saxophone

17. Patty Griffin

October 21 at Ryman Auditorium

Griffin displayed a very warm and inviting personality while touring her album American Kid, which focuses on her family relationships. She told personal stories about her dad and grandfather and explained how they connected with the themes of each song. She also cleverly tinkered with different arrangements for several songs. She transformed "Don't Let Me Die in Florida," with the presence of blusey, warbly electric guitar, while a dash of accordion was injected into the teary eyed eulogy "Go Wherever You Wanna Go."

16. Animal Collective

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Their set was insane, and had great stage production value. With rows of teeth and and giant pointy blowup balloons adorning the stage, it looked like something out of an acid trip. Michael Winslow from Police Academy announced the band's entrance, and they played late into the night. It came across like listening to an old transistor radio late at night, fading from one song into the next. One of the highlights was Avey Tare twerking around onstage with nothing but mic in hand while singing "Peacebone." They played a bit long, but their dieheards probably would have taken much more.

15. The Whiskey Gentry

December 7 at Variety Playhouse

This show marked a special occasion for these Atlanta based country/folk rockers as they celebrated their 5th annual Merry Y'all Tide Celebration. The band was a blast onstage, ripping into breakneck solos on banjo, mandolin, violin, and more. Although they may be country/folk based, the intensity they play with rivals that of a punk band. Throughout the set they were joined by various artists from the Atlanta area, ending with a folk/gypsy extravaganza that featured over 15 performers onstage. No matter your spirit, The Whiskey Gentry proves there's no better band for celebrating the holidays with glasses raised high.

14. Preservation Hall Jazz Band

June 15 at Bonnaroo

It's hard to discount the way good old New Orleans jazz can positively affect the soul. Preservation Hall Jazz Band have not only kept this incredible tradition intact, but have impressively expanded upon it. Their Saturday night Bonnaroo crowd responded in full force, dressing themselves up in 1920s style suit and ties and kicking it like it was still pre-Depression era.The best treat, though, came near the end when My Morning Jacket's Jim James joined them onstage for a jaw dropping rendition of blues/jazz classic "St. James Infirmary."

13. Atoms for Peace

October 3 at War Memorial Auditorium

Atoms for Peace take the cake in terms of unique stage setup. The Thom Yorke fronted superband relies heavily on percussion and electronics, eschewing guitar almost entirely. This leaves Flea to play bass like a lead instrument, which is essentially what it functions as in this band. There are flourishes of guitar, but it tends to get eaten up by their impressive wall of sound.  Nigel Godrich's deep knowledge of electronics enables him to crank out impressive beats, while a pair of percussionists layer over top of that. Also consider that you have Thom Yorke and Flea on the same stage, and that's almost too much badassness to comprehend.

12. Savages

October 7 at Municipal Auditorium

For a band with only one album, Savages are way better live than anyone has a right to expect them to be. The band is powerfully propelled by their rhythm section, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton. They have a versatile guitarist in Gemma Thompson, who can alternate between light, gentle brushstrokes and jagged riffing, while frontwoman Jhenny Beth generates a blast of defiant, feminist energy while slipping back and forth from steely edged rock singer to performance artist and back again.

11. David Byrne/St. Vincent

June 16 at Bonnaroo

Dave Byrne and Annie Clark are about as good as you can ask for when it comes to performers who know how to have fun. They promote a quirky, fist pumping nature, while singing songs covering all sorts of zany topics. Their band presented a big, loud, and brassy sound, and the duo even mixed it up by letting all of their bandmembers go through line and sing a line into the microphone. If that's not enough, hits from the Talking Heads catalog, along with gems from Clark herself should be ample to convert almost anyone. These two clearly have a blast on stage, and make sure you do too.

10. Weird Al

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Some might scoff at Weird Al, but don't write him off.  His showmanship is first rate, and his decades of experience have enabled him to perfect the art of his live shows. It's a very production heavy show, as Al's costume changes see him parody everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Amish preachers. Also charming is his use of video screens to poke fun at non-musical entertainment figures in between costume changes. The popular culture he satirizes is so ingrained in our culture that almost anyone can relate to his shows on a variety of levels.

9. Janelle Monae

November 17 at Ryman Auditorium

When it comes to meticulously planning and arranging a concert, few put more work in than Monae. She entered the stage strapped to a dolly like a mental patient, then proceeded to blow our minds. Her shows are highly thematic, her upbeat demeanor rivals that of Matt & Kim, and she can also lay claim to the best set of pipes I have ever witnessed live. But it all paled in comparison to her 25 minute extended jam of "War of the Roses," where she moonwalked, led the audience in a Cab Calloway style sing along, jumped into the crowd, and even conducted an audience costume contest.

8. Sleigh Bells

November 8 at Marathon Music Works

This was the best I physically felt after any concert this year. After soaking in all the energy this duo left on stage, I felt like I was ready to go level a forest. Guitarist Derek Miller's playbook extends far beyond mere headbanging, allowing him to craft musical backdrops that are threatening and dissonant, while others are rowdy and rollicking. Alexis Krauss, meanwhile, draws from her experience fronting a girlpop band and proves she knows how to play to a crowd, getting them riled up with throat stomping badassery. 

7. Steven Wilson

April 17 at Variety Playhouse

Wilson's previous band, Porcupine Tree, was a regular entrant on many best live bands list. He hasn't garnered as much press since their hiatus, but it would be a major error to write off his solo shows. The musicianship is first rate, with famed British guitarist Guthrie Govan joining Wilson's live band, along with a slew of other virtuoso musicians. Wilson weaves an impressive multimedia aspect into his act, projecting eerie, dissonant video clips to complement his creative concoctions. Touting material from his excellent album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, Wilson haunted the auditorium with tales of ghosts, supernatural beings, and other menaces, while also breaking out cataclysmic prog rock from his first two albums. The highlight goes to their captivating performance of "Raider II," which silenced the crowd for its 25 minute duration.

6. The Wayne Shorter Quartet with Esperanza Spalding and the Nashville Symphony

April 12 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

This was easily the jazz event of the year in Nashville. Shorter's backing quartet features some of the most talented musicians in the world, on any instrument in any genre. Shorter can't blow the pipes like he used to, but just seeing him preform is a treat. The symphony upped the ante by joining in after the first set, but that was no preparation for what Spalding brought to the fore. I admit I wasn't well versed in her work prior to the show. That changed after her glorious and dominating voice pierced every square inch of Nashville's cavernous Schermerhorn Center.  It served as an overpowering testament to jazz's legacy, along with a strong affirmation that its future is indeed bright.

5. Queens of the Stone Age

October 7 at Municipal Auditorium

Queens of the Stone Age aren't flashy, but they operate like a well oiled machine. With Josh Homme showing off muscular rock and roll chops, bassist Michael Shuman going nuts all over the stage, and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen clad in his signature black suit and red tie, these are some of the meanest, leanest rockers around.  They got off to a blazing start, instantly hooking the audience with great rock and roll sing alongs "No One Knows" and "Burn the Witch," but demonstrated their catalog is much more diverse than the hits their known for. They pack plenty of well known crunching rockers, but can also deploy raging piano power ballads, grooving funk pieces, and even dissonant jam tunes. Their songs always have a distinctive flavor, and it is predicated on being slightly different in their rhythm section. Many songs will have very distinctive beats but are also very simple, to the point it makes you wonder why someone else hasn't thought of it first.

4. Bjork

June 15 at Bonnaroo

This is the show that made me a fan of Bjork. Up till this point I always had a curious interest in her but had never found time to listen to her works. Her sunset set on Bonnaroo's main stage vindicated that sentiment in a big way. She came out in a dress that looked like it was made of mangled fish, wearing that unforgettable icicle headgear and supported by a choir dressed in blue and gold cloths. The early part of her performance felt like a New York art museum translated into a musical equivalent, with songs that were mellow and restrained but serene and majestic. As the sun began to set, however, she broke out much harsher beats in songs like "Hyperballad" and "Nattura" that you could free yourself to get lost in. There was no more absorbing dance related experience this year, and certainly nowhere else you can go to get an audiovisual experience quite like Bjork.

3. Nine Inch Nails

October 22 at Bridgestone Arena

When I heard talk about the Nine Inch Nails light show, I had no idea what I was in for. Thinking of it in terms of a light show is simply missing the point. The vision designed by Trent Reznor and Rob Sheridan is a full on embrace of the various ways technology can transform our idea of what a concert can be. Full on digital scanning creates various images that complement each song, the most jaw dropping of which was the giant NiN logo at the end that was made by what was initially just nine clusters of lights. But to pull it off the way these guys also requires a killer band onstage, and Nine Inch Nails is a band capable of tearing it up with or without fancy tricks. This was proven by the final three song run in the main set, consisting of "Head Like a Hole," "The Hand That Feeds," and "Wish," undoubtedly my most breathless concert experience of the year. 

2. Iron Maiden

September 5 at Bridgestone Arena

I'd seen clips of Bruce Dickinson electrifying massive crowds on TV specials and Youtube videos, but an opportunity to physically see one of the world's most passionate, intense, and beloved bands is an incomparable experience.  Their Bridgestone set was ripe with an amazing setlist, and the stage setup and production is second to none. The concert's theme was based upon their Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album, and had the corresponding icy glacier/mesa setup, Bruce wore his aviator cap and waved the UK flag, and Eddie stalked around all over stage. Far from just a band onstage playing old songs, like contemporaries Metallica and Megadeth. This is one of the last few remaining bands that still capture the spirit of 1980s metal and communicate it to younger generations. It's a shame I couldn't have been there to drink in that scene, but thanks to Iron Maiden I was able to live it for one night.

1. Paul McCartney

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Paul McCartney has been enjoying a heavy dose of visibility lately. He's had a great new album, Saturday Night Live cameos, and continual touring over the past few years. I was fortunate in that this was my second time seeing him. His performance was on par with his Bridgestone Arena set I saw three years ago, although that show will always be my favorite as it was my first time seeing him. Nevertheless, his headlining set at Bonnaroo allows McCartney to top my list for the second time in four years. It was an incredible shared collective experience with 80,000 other people.

The final remaining core of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting battery preformed a slew of songs from his solo projects, Wings, and The Beatles and showed us why he's one of the most electric performers and songwriters to ever walk this planet. Massive screens broadcasted all of his antics and fireworks all the way to the back of Bonnaroo's massive main field. He broke out several old Sgt. Peppers songs that hadn't been heard in years, including "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Your Mother Should Know." Even more fittingly, someone tossed a plush walrus doll on stage, which Paul placed on his piano while he played his final encore. There isn't a better live show on earth than this.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Israeli prog metal outfit Orphaned Land lose their touch on All is One

All is takes is a few good listens to All is One to realize this isn't the same old Orphaned Land we've grown to know and love. Part of the change is literal, following last year's departure of guitarist Matti Svatizky. But it's also clear the band have truncated their tunes, eschewing their typical long, winding, progressive song structures in favor of more condensed tunes that are much shorter on average. This can often be a winning approach if a band is able to cut out the fat and streamline their sound, but there is also the risk of losing what makes a band stand out. The songs on All is One may be shorter, but it hasn't helped their focus. And to make matters worse, these cuts lack punch.

The first two tracks on their previous album, The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR, showcased perfectly how to forge a short, hard hitting blast of heavy metal, and then transition it into a more extended, progressive piece full of atmosphere and great instrumentation. All is One, however, discards that sense of variety, and is instead clogged with sterile five to six minute tracks that start off strong but lose their moxie as they progress. And to make matters worse, the album presents one of the most half baked and cliched representations of the Middle East in possibly ever. The first half of the album is hilariously over-reliant on delivering a Middle Eastern/Egyptian sound, even in comparison with their earlier works.

It seems as if their goal is to make damn well sure you know they're from the Middle East. Album opener "All is One" leads in with overly dramatic choir vocals, setting up vocalist Kobi Fahrl to make reference to the blazing desert sands in the album's very first line. In most cases, allowing your environment to color your music can be a positive, but here it very quickly begins to sound artificial. The only saving grace is that guitarist Yossi Sassi Sa'aron can typically be depended on to deliver a dazzling solo whenever the music gets stale.

Musically, this album is probably the most accessible of Orphaned Land's career and seems focused on moving away from many of the band's traditional elements. This may disappoint metal purists, but it really isn't a bad thing. At least in the context of this album, it's not where the real problem lies. Many of the songs are bolstered by a prominent orchestral sound, along with plenty of acoustic folk elements. "Let the Truce Be Known" is accented by mellow flute and a martial drum line, while the acoustic stylings of warm hearted power ballad "Brother" sounds like the band's take on Opeth's "Harvest."

"Fail" is easily the most metal song on the disc, with Kobi Fahrl's deep death vocals. He pulls them off very well considering that he usually sticks to clean vocals, but the material itself is dripping in cheese. An overabundance of spoken word vocal sections lose their initial impact quickly, but at least the guitar parts are melodic enough to keep things interesting.

The latter half of the disc tends to falter somewhat. Instrumental "Freedom" starts off strong out of the gate but loses quickly loses steam. Its attempt to marry heavy metal guitar with Latin infused acoustic rhythms is a well conceived design, but the song suffers from lack of distinctive riffs outside of the opening. This is the general problem with many of the later songs on All is One. Many of them open with powerful, distinctive riffing but become more generic as it goes along. The gypsy beat of "Shama'im" can't save it from mediocrity, while "Ya Benye" suffers from awkward vocals and doesn't accomplish much of anything from the first note to the last.
All things considered, All is One is certainly a listenable record with a pleasing overall sound, but that should be a matter of course for a band as accomplished as Orphaned Land. The biggest sin still comes down to just how cheesy the entire affiar is. They miss a golden opportunity here. If, say, Orphaned Land were a metal band who just so happened to be from Israel, interpreting the contours of today's metal scene through the lenses of guys who grew up in one of the most volatile areas of the world it could be genius. And for the most part, that's what we got out of the early part of their career.  

Sahara fascinated with its dune blasted black metal, and for once gave us a black metal record that wasn't inspired by some permanently frozen forest in Finland or Norway. But on All is One, Orphaned Land push the Middle Eastern tropes to such an extent that it almost comes across as caricature; nearly every song on the record sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to a Mummy movie starring Bela Lugosi. The biggest shame of it all is that it obscures the fact that Fahrl rightly brings up some very pertinent and serious issues that have historically plagued his native Israel. And this is, in fact, the biggest failing of All is One; it takes a sound influenced by one of mankind's cradle of civilizations, and distills it down to little more than a gimmick.

Score: 71/100
Related posts:

Orphaned Land - Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR album review
Orphaned Land live at The Masquerade, Atlanta
Interview with Orphaned Land guitarist Yossi Sassi Sa'aron

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Totally Unauthorized 2013 4th Quarter Playlist: October - December

With the final installment of the quarterly playlist for 2013, the overall list for the year is now complete. And what a year it has been! 2013 has refused to go into the night quietly, pumping out amazing tracks even in the typical November-December dead period. This should give you a head start on stocking stuffer ideas for anyone interested in keeping up with the best of today's contemporary sounds. And to make the list complete, I have provided links to the first three sections of the list, covering the other parts of the year. Happy Holidays!






Sleigh Bells may be best known for Derek Miller's headbanging guitar antics, but "Sugarcane" demonstrates Alexis Krauss's ability to headline a song on her own terms. Her breathy, airy voice leads the listener through an infectious melody, while the buzzsaw guitar riff lends an ample amount of energy. 


The low, bassy, hip-hop styling of Purity Ring's production have always begged for the presence of a bonafide emcee, and Danny Brown is here to save the day. Corin Roddick's production provides a new perspective to Brown's bleak tales of street life, while Megan James delivers a smooth but dissonant hook.


Janelle Monae released a popular album this year about an android. But VV Brown's latest sounds as though it actually could have been made by an android. "Igneous" packs a sneering, acidic edge and presents a bold, breathtaking representation of her mystical, whimsical, and highly conceptual space age pop music.


If you haven't paid attention to rap for awhile, here are two vibrant names to look into. If you have, you can barely escape mention of them. Pusha's flow is laid back but clearly focused as he delivers an intimidating verse. Not to be outdone, Kendrick rips into a tale of how he rose from the streets to find his own success.


Crunching, guitar driven rockers are Pearl Jam's bread and butter, and the opening track from their 10th album, Lightning Bolt, is one of their best in years. Jeff Ament's grooving bass, Eddie Vedder's questioning of the accepted order, and a litany of solos firing off here and there create a tasty rock and roll confection.


Although it gets off to a rollicking start, Pelican's vision unfolds slowly but deliberately. Once their full vision of ravaging instrumental metal is laid out, however, you will come to appreciate the boundless sense of direction with which this band operates. That the song has such a badass title is just more points in its favor.


Everything about this song is Paul McCartney doing what he does best. It's very simple and straightforward pop/rock with crunching guitars, great harmonies, and a boundless sense of optimism, but what seals the deal on "New" is McCartney's undeniable sense of charm and charisma.



Everything about this song delivers chills. It builds as it goes, contrasting Win Butler's airy vocals with Regine Chassigne's French language verse, before adding in some dramatic guitar work and piano that will make the hairs on your arms stand up. Butler's desperate pleas near the track's close could not be more perfect.


It may be unfair including this song on the list, as it was first released in early 2012. Yet "Bad Girls" is easily the most infectious cut from her newly released Matangi album. She stays true to her world music influences, but the main meat of the song is carried by a series of catchy hooks soaked in her irresistible accent.


When you hit play on a Cut Copy album, you can always be sure a good time is about to ensue. The Australian dance outfit keeps things festive on "Take Me Higher," the third single from their third album "Free Your Mind," but the dazzling outro to this song ranks as one of 2013's most dancable moments.


Donald Glover may be searching for his identity as a rapper, but he has great production to help him find his way. This song is very flowery; it feels like sitting in a garden orchard somewhere. It's the musical equivalent of drinking raspberry lemonade. Aiko's vocals, meanwhile, are pristine, calming, and totally groovy.


The work of Will Bevan has always been dense, wandering, and haunting, but "Come Down to Us," from his Rival Dealer EP, shows something more. It sounds at times mythical and Eastern, and at other times uncharacteristically warm for his standards. It ends with Bevan's thought provoking anti-bullying plea. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Whiskey Gentry and Animal Collective = scatterbrained weekend

I saw two shows last weekend, which leaves me in a bind. Which one do I cover for my monthly concert review? Why not both? Let's start with The Whiskey Gentry, who rocked Atlanta's Variety Playhouse Saturday night. There was a strong Christmas theme, due in part to the fact that this show was their 5th annual Merry Y'all Tide Celebration, which apparently they do in their hometown of Atlanta every year in December.

Blair Crimmins and Michael Smith find themselves in the holiday spirit.

Their basic sound is that of country mixed with folk, but what caught my attention with this band is they mix in gypsy/punk influences into the music. It's not exactly woven into the actual sound, but their demeanor on stage and the way they interact with one another has an almost punk mentality to it. And they're all practically virtuoso level on their instruments. There was a violinist, a mandolin player, a guy who played a banjo-tar, and they would all go nuts on their instruments cranking out crazy solo after crazy solo. There's a southern vibe to it to be sure, but it's almost as if New York or Boston was trying to emulate a Southern hoe-down.

Whiskey Gentry singer Lauren Staley rips it up.
It was also cool that they alternated singers. Lead singer Lauren Staley is a typical country/western girl, who
did have a great voice, but they let the violinist sing for one song and he impressed with his great, smooth tenor. They also had a big, unshaven guitarist who looked like he could have been from the Dropkick Murphys, who sang a song about New York in a rough bristling voice. The diversity of this band was incredible. Of course they did have their winey country tinged songs. There was song about getting drunk and making out with strangers, which was supposed to be a tribute to one of the singer's friends, and there was also this smartass song she wrote in response to one of her bandmembers who said she hadn't been writing enough songs.

But there was also the fact that this was apparently some sort of jubilee, and as such the band had several guests, all from other Atlanta area bands, that came out with them onstage periodically. There was a guy that looked like John Lennon who came out and sang a Christmas Carol with Staley, there was a lady who came out and did backup vocals on one song, and even a guy who came out and started playing crazy harmonica. During the encore, everyone came out on the stage, including Blair Crimmins, the opening act, along with his entire horn section. All told there were 15 people on stage at once all going nuts and singing, while confetti was raining down all over the stage. I'm not even from this town, and I was still feeling the vibes.

Animal Collective, on the other hand, was a completely different experience, for more reasons than the obvious. To be honest I was not really into this show. A few songs I liked, but as a whole I don't feel much of a connection with most of the material they have been playing on this tour. The setlist, which is dominated by their latest album, Centipede Hz, and tunes from a few obscure EPs, don't show off the band at their best. It's too noodly, too trippy, and spends too much time floating and wandering around without making much of an indelible impact. Opening with "Applesauce" was cool, but other cuts like "I Think I Can" and "Pulleys" just float around with too much abstract silliness and ambiance, that sound like it would be suited to sync up perfectly with an acid trip, but not everyone is into that.

Deakin of Animal Collective sets a dreary mood.

With their fanbase expanding, Animal Collective seems hard pressed to hold on to their status as the leading drug band which is what they seem to be trying to do. Merriweather Post Pavillion and Strawberry Jam are filled with great, challenging material that shows off various different components to the band than what they've played live recently, but judging by their setlists it's like they're trying to do as much as they can to disown those albums. It's like they're trying to maintain their indie/hipster cred by downplaying the fact they now have a successful/more accessible record and are trying to act like it doesn't exist. I respect they aren't selling out but it feels like they're going a bit far.

Certain songs did sound a bit different, which is a nice change. I didn't even really recognize "Lion in a Coma" until one of my friends pointed it out after the show. I did notice the song's trademark bouncing didgeridoos but wasn't sure if they were just trying to work those into the mix for some other song. The middle section of "Brother Sport" was also quite different from the recording, which was cool. I also appreciated "Amanita." The closing refrain of "I'm going to come back and things will be different/I'm going to bring back some stories and games" captures the childlike wonder that the band so masterfully captured during their early career. 
Related post:

Animal Collective - Centipede Hz review