Saturday, March 24, 2018

On MANIA, the wheels finally come off

Drowned in Sound tears into all of Fall Out Boy's output post hiatus here.  They're 1/3 (maybe 2/3, depending on how you look at it) right.  This is a band that had cratered, and cratered hard, with the lukewarm reception of Folie a Deux.  On their return, they vowed to "Save Rock and Roll" - and while their tongues were planted firmly in cheek, they managed to pull off a hat trick.  That album fused the best of their pop punk bonafides with galloping electropop backdrops, and against all odds, it worked.  On American Beauty/American Psycho, it more or less continued to work, but the cracks were showing in the facade.

MANIA is the sound of a band with zero fucks to give.  Coming out as it does after a delayed-release that saw some songs scrapped and others re-worked, this would lead most listeners to think time would heal the wounds - such is not the case.  The re-shuffled track order starts off promisingly enough, with "Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea" riding along on sheer confidence and sheer cornball appeal alike ("About to go Tonya Harding on the whole world's knee," anyone?)  As an opener, it rides a Goldilocks moment - a just right mix of the new waters the band have decided to dip their toes into (or as D.I.S. would call it, the dreck of "cynical calculation.")

Not long goes by before everything goes off the rails, however.  MANIA was described thusly:

What ends up coming through the speakers when listening to this [mercifully short] album doesn't sound at all like a palette cleanse.  Lead single "Young & Menace" starts off on what sounds like a sly build-up-and-release structure, then veers off inexplicably into chipmunk-vocal-processing madness that makes you wonder what the hell happened.  Looking at the lyrics absent the song, this reads like what could have been a catchy, well-constructed track, but the ill-advised decision to play with every last cheesy vocal processing trick in the book sinks it.  In the back half of the album, "Champion" plays like a sad echo of the far-better "Centuries."  Even "Hold Me Tight Or Don't" while a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the tracks on display, is all too proud to display the complete and utter lack of soul with its faux-reggae bounce sounds, dutifully passed through the pop-EDM meat grinder that was used on literally every song on this album.

The sequence is fitting, this being the seventh overall, but third full length since they re-emerged post hiatus.  With MANIA, Fall Out Boy have notched their "Be Here Now" into the record books.  Like that oft-maligned Oasis album, MANIA is the depressing sound of a band so high on their own ability to throw anything at the wall and think it will stick.  Oasis eventually remembered how to just simply make music again after the cocaine-drenched nightmare phase of their career had passed.  Here's hoping Fall Out Boy finds their own way out of the mess for album number 8.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Noel Gallagher tries his hand at "Cosmic pop" and pulls it off against all odds.

While I may have previously sung the praises of "Chasing Yesterday", it was clear that Noel Gallagher had reached the limits of what he could do with that take on his sound.  He was playing the safe route - album opener "Riverman" rides along on a cadence identical to breakout Oasis hit "Wonderwall."  Sure, the notes have changed, but the similarity is there nonetheless.  On "Who Built The Moon?" Gallagher benefits from the presence of David Holmes in the producer's chair.  This is the album that Gallagher had clearly hoped Oasis "Be Here Now" would be - only this time the music was recorded outside the haze of an excess of cocaine, as that bloated, over-wrought Oasis album was.

Here, Gallagher finds a way to rejuvenate his trademark sound in every flavor imaginable.  Largely instrumental opener "Fort Knox" sets the pace, with ringing alarm bells and strident, demanding music filling the speakers.  It makes a perfect segueway into this album's lead single "Holy Mountain", which gives the dedicated Oasis/Gallagher listener the thing they never knew they wanted - Noel strutting his way through a track with the same swagger as his estranged brother Liam brought to so many of Oasis' best tracks.  This swagger surfaces again in the midsection, when after a bright, uplifting twinkling-stars-above track "It's a beautiful world" [also being a track with a dose of sly spoken-word sarcasm mixed in], the album cuts into "She taught me how to fly."  The energy of this track is intoxicatingly happy, and feels like a song built to get people dancing in the aisles when played live.

Fittingly, the album's latter half is the comedown, the subdued closer to all this raucous energy that starts the proceedings.  "Be careful what you wish for" neatly apes the vibe of the Beatles "Come together" while still remaining uniquely Noel.  "If love is the law" makes for a song that is perhaps trite lyrically, but still enjoyable for the Noel-flavored take on producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" style.

Overall, comparisons to Be Here Now are once again appropriate - while Be Here Now was an over-stuffed 70 minutes, on "Who built the moon", some of the songs do run past the 5 minute mark.  The difference here is that they sound like they actually need to be that long, not long for the sake of being long.  And the album as a whole clocks in at a tidy 43 minutes.  No longer resting on the safety of Chasing Yesterday, Noel Gallagher paints the way towards an uplifting and more interesting musical future with Who Built The Moon?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On album 3, Imagine Dragons try to "Evolve" but don't stick the landing.

On their 3rd album, Imagine Dragons channel their talents into a realm that just doesn't seem to fit them.  Gone are the tracks that deftly meld the best bits of power guitar pop and simple, honest pop.  What is found here instead is 11 tracks that have their moments, but never really take off the way their past work did.

Dan Reynolds' vocal stylings have always been tailor made for grandiose, epic instrumentals to stand behind them.  This makes the sonic choices on "Evolve" quite the head-scratcher.  Opening track "I don't know why" sets the tone for the entire album, itself being a minimalist affair that sounds like a competent Tears for Fears cover band.  Competent, yes, but a Tears for Fears cover band just the same.  The impassioned vocals are still there, but they seem to clash with the arrangements, and this continues to be a problem all the way through.  The songs are pleasant enough, usually, but it just doesn't feel the same.  With the hard-charging synth bass-line of lead single "Believer" revealing itself to be a painfully obvious attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice ("Radioactive - Part II, anyone?") it is clear they are going all out to re-capture past glories.  Same goes for "Yesterday" which feels like a jagged-edge companion piece to "Hopeless Opus" that doesn't quite gel.  When they do manage to sound like they fit alongside this new musical direction, it does result in some agreeable head-nodders (see late album track "Start Over.")  They also turn in a pleasing riff on the "Weirdo everyone makes fun of who later gets to say 'Well, I sure showed you, didn't I?'" with the toe-tapping stomp of "Thunder."

It is also clear that they don't have high regard for the not-as-well-received (but arguably much better) "Smoke & Mirrors."  So much of that album worked, and worked better than anything they had done before, yet, on "Evolve" they throw nearly all of it away.  So much of what appears on "Evolve" feels like the course correction they didn't really need to do.  They have shown over the course of their previous 2 full lengths that they have strengths as a band that they can exploit to create enjoyable, vibrant music.  Here those strengths seem buried under what feels very much like a "producer's album."  Nothing wrong with that kind of album, sure, but it's disappointing to see when the band releasing it is obviously capable of more.  "Evolve" is the sound of a band who is trapped on stage in Sally Field mode - they want listeners to like them, to REALLY LIKE THEM!  The problem is, most listeners already did, and this bald attempt to win back people who hadn't really run away in the first place, while pleasant-sounding enough, is a pale imitation of their true talents as a band.  Here's hoping they believe in themselves a bit more on album number 4.

5 1/2 stars out of 10.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 albums of 2016

Here we go once more - as always, pulled strictly from things I purchased and listened to over the year and NOT an extensive or entire-catalog-of-everything-this-year level list.  Also, as always, rated with an ear for replayability and overall being a great listen.

10.Broods - Conscious

This plucky duo from New Zealand rose to prominence in the shadow of other far more successful artists who are also from that part of the globe (Lorde, anyone?)  This is no criticism, however, just a matter of where they came from.  Where it gets better is in their follow up.  Here they show they were no 1-trick pony.  They take the best of what made their debut album great, and double down on the best musical techniques.  Where the debut "Evergreen" might have sounded overly sparse or seemingly incomplete in places, here the proceedings are much more rich, dynamic, and compelling.  Not an overabundance of sounds just for the sake of having them there, but a "just right" electro pop mix that makes this a worthy step forward and a fine listen.

9.Sting - 57th and 9th

Sting finally returns, after a 13 year gap from releasing new material (if you exclude, of course, his lute excursions, the soundtrack to The Last Ship, and his symphonicities project, among other off the beaten path discs.)  His return to pure straight up un-varnished pop rock is a welcome return, but doesn't always seem to get to the finish line.  This album was recorded with many of his long time players including Dominic Miller [guitars] Vinnie Colaiuta [drums] and many more that are undeniably talented.  It opens with a stomper that seems time warped straight out of his Police days, but gets a bit lost in the latter half with ballads that seem half-baked and not quite fully realized.  And when he tries to tackle climate change on "One Fine Day" it comes off like Sting trying to be Bono in U2 shaking his polemic fist and not quite pulling it off.  It's a welcome return, but it could have been so much better.

8.Onerepublic - Oh My My

On their 4th, Tedder & co. work to step outside their safe zone.  This album was recorded all over the world off and on as the band toured around “Native” and it shows.  It is at once all over the place and firmly grounded with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  Sometimes the stepping outside the safe zone yields gems (the sparse, minimal “Born”) and sometimes doesn’t quite work.  The shuffling, wander-heavy "Fingertips" feels like a demo version that never got quite fully worked out into a full song.  Such odd touches and bizarre diversions are to be expected, though, when stepping outside the safe zone.  If this is the test phase that leads toward an amazing album number 5 years down the road, it's still an interesting test phase to listen to before album 5 comes along.

7.Garbage - Strange Little Birds

Garbage have always done the human soul torn wide open in its most vulnerable moments, but even within the vulnerability on full display, there was always a slight bit of caution involved.  Manson and co. have always known how to blend human pathos and distorted electro rock to create compelling music, but their first quartet of albums always gave the impression that the group was writing songs that were smart, cutting, and deep, but didn't quite have the personal touch.  There's nothing wrong with that kind of song, mind you, but after a while, there are only so many songs like that one band can come up with before they have to dig deeper.  And dig they did.  Garbage in the 1990's could NEVER - and I repeat - NEVER have cooked up a song as naked, haunting, and beautiful as this album's second to last track, the ghostly ballad "Teaching little fingers to play."  This album is an adjustment - some of the fury that they poured into song before has been washed away in favor of a lighter touch all across the board.  Still a worthy listen for fans old and new alike.

6.Aesop Rock - The Impossible Kid

I discovered this artist too late.  I actually first heard his name mentioned in a Macklemore song.  Intrigued, I searched on google, and after a few listens, was hooked, and as of writing this, own this, and 2 of his previous albums, and find all 3 fantastic.  His style is a tweaked-out barrage of non sequiturs that seem at first inscrutable and un-reachable, but when you take the time to pay attention, reveal a keen mind at work spinning tales of his life and experience.  The best hip hop has always been, no matter the artist, the type of person who can spin life experiences into lyrical montages spread atop a catchy beat.  From the uncut nostalgia ode to his brothers of “Blood Sandwich” to the midlife crisis-leaning “Lotta Years” or the clever ode to his cat “Kirby” - this artist certainly does manage, as other reviewers have quipped, to come down from the mountain “Tuff with 2 F’s”

5.Pet Shop Boys - Super

The second album to come out since they have linked up with Stuart Price, and they continue a hot streak that most would never expect possible from a band 3 decades in, but the ‘Boys do it with flair and style.  The album suffers a bit from a mid-section that packs in not one, but two mostly lyric-less filler tracks, but this is part of why the PSB remain so strong to this day - even their filler tracks sound great.  Not many bands can say that with a straight face.

Choice cuts:
“The Pop Kids”
“Into Thin Air”

4.Steven Page - Heal Thyself Part 1 - Instinct

Steven Page and Ed Robertson each brought an equal amount of fine talent to the show during their time as co-lead singers of Barenaked Ladies.  Since Page split from the group, his output has been scarce at best, so just to see even a new album at all is vaguely worth celebrating.  It's even more worth celebrating when it's this bloody good.  Lead teaser track released to the internet "Surprise Surprise" is only the delightfully tasty center at the middle of a solid, well rounded album.  This is definitely an album that only Steven Page circa now could have made.  The nervous, talented dork who made music with his school buddies in the late 80's and early 90's and later turned that into a career is gone.  In its place is the same talented dork, but with a world weary, lived-in quality infusing the music.  It's all on display here, all the way from the dashed-hopes-and-dreams lament of "Hole in the moonlight." to the languid, sardonic lament on a personal crisis of spirituality in "I can see my house from here."  These are the songs of someone who has experience, but feels all the more confused even having gained that experience.  To the point - someone who wants to share that journey with his audience in song, still, and does a damn good job doing so.

Choice Cuts:
"If That's Your Way"
"Here's What It Takes"

3.Robbie Williams - The Heavy Entertainment Show

This album proves that sometimes the artist and collaborator of choice make the best work.  His previous album had the insufferably sweet but still great "Candy" but seemed a bit lacking in places.  For The Heavy Entertainment Show, Williams linked back up once again with songwriting partner Guy Chambers.  Is it Chambers being there as the filter to keep Williams' own bad ideas in check?  Is it them working better as a team?  Hard to say, really.  But they really do knock it out of the park here.  The opening title track teases a bit with a light piano intro, then stomps into very much "Heavy" territory and this only lets up a handful of times.  Even when it lets up, it doesn't really let up.  "David's Song" is heavy in another way - coming as it does as a lament on the death of Williams' longtime manager David Enthoven.  Other publications have derided this disc for being an album that lurches from place to place, with no cohesion.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  This is a solid reminder that Williams can do just about anything you could want to hear from him, with just enough of each to whet the appetite, but never giving too much of any one thing.  Lead single "Party like a russian" is amusing enough to make the listener want to find a copy of the original lyrics (this song was reportedly toned down a bit for the version that ended up on the album vs the more scathing rip on Putin that Williams had [reportedly] come up with originally.)  Even so, it is still an amazing piece of work.

Choice cuts:
"Pretty Woman"
"When You Know"

2.Empire Of The Sun - 2 Vines

This was way better than it had any right to be.  Empire Of The Sun had a hit with “Walking on a dream” which could have been called a fluke, then “Alive” from their second album proved they were no 1 trick pony - but the well they draw from was one that was bound to run dry all too quick.  Or so one might have thought after listening to their previous effort “Ice on the dune” one too many times.  With “2 Vines” - they have proven they have plenty more to draw from that well.  If the last album was the delirious celebration and party, “2 Vines” is the serenity-drenched after party.  All tripped-out peaceful-flow vibes and relaxed melodies - melodies that quietly slip into your head and make you want to listen to them over and over again.

Choice Cuts
“Way To Go”
“To Her Door”

1.Red Hot Chili Peppers - The Getaway

After much agonizing, this one wins the top spot for sheer replayability.  I had hit the pause button on listening to this one for a while as I had purchased new music recently, but coming back to it as I collected this list, and considered which album should go where, this one was the obvious pick for the top slot.  Not only is it a rock solid effort from front to back, it pulls off a few seemingly impossible hat tricks.  First, it shows that they are NOT dependent on John Frusciante to make amazing music - Josh Klinghoffer blends in delightfully with their style on this disc.  Second - it shows they know how to age gracefully while still remembering how to make the kind of music that made people want to listen to them in the first place.  Like a fine wine, these peppers have only gotten better with age.

Choice cuts:
“Feasting On The Flowers”

Honorable Mentions:

The following 3 ended up here because - while appealing on initial listen, I almost forgot to include them on the list - showing that they lack seriously in repeat play value, but do have some value even so.

Meghan Trainor - Thank You
Lady Gaga - Joanne
Zayn - Mind of Mine

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Top 10 albums from 2000-2010

10 - Way Out West - "Don't Look Now"

Occasionally DJ's of various flavors decide to step away from just spinning together the songs of others and try making some music of their own. In my experience, a field of very little middle ground. Either a delight for the ears, or proof they shouldn't quit their day job. This disc is most assuredly the former. Nick Warren & Jody Wisternoff, with an assist on vocals from Omi, spin an album which is schizophrenic, but appealing.

But what is in store, you may ask? Is it a four-on-the-floor dance burner like "Anything But You"? Or perhaps a somber, moody electro-ode to fading love, on the very next track "Don't Forget Me"?. Or perhaps it is an epic, 11 minute long, slow-building lead-up to an explosion of sound, daring you to sit still like "Killa". It manages to weave together all these disparate styles and feelings - it is a little bit trance, a sprinkle of house, maybe, but all channeled through a pop sensibility that not all albums like this truly pull off. Or at least, not that well. The variety continues well into the final, ethereal "Absinthe Dreams". Other reviews speak poorly of this trait - hard to see why, as the mix gives something for everyone, is well put together, and end to end stands as not just a great electronica album, but a great pop album overall. If you find yourself one who scoffed at electronica before, give this one a try, you may just be surprised.

9 - Goo Goo Dolls - "Gutterflower"

The dolls have released 2 albums since this one, and not to say they are bad - but this one just hit the perfect mark. As Rzeznik was heard to quip on the Behind The Music special on the band "We've turned a corner" - something he observed when the 3-piece orchestra showed up at the studio during the recording of "Iris". He was right, but only half so. Dizzy Up The Girl started around the corner, and Gutterflower is walking proudly on the other side of the building, with a bit of the sneer brought back.

It is still power guitar pop, no question, but there is a grittier undercurrent running through all the tracks here, from the twisting first single "Here Is Gone" to the beaten-but-not-broken "It's Over" to the simple acoustic yearn of "Sympathy" - here the Dolls take all their best pieces and weld them together with high-sheen guitar pop, and end up with the most consistent, well-rounded album of their career, landing them number 9 on this list.

8 - New Order - "Get Ready"

For a band who rose out of the ashes of another, and released this album 8 years after the previous in 1993...did they have anything left worth listening to in 2000, after what is several eternities in the music business? The answer storms out of the speakers with the sparkling licks of "Crystal" the second you hit play. And going with the over-arching theme of all albums picked for this list of end to end cohesion - this disc has it going in spades. The rollicking mood rolls along at "60 Miles an hour", and then Corgan joins along for "Turn My Way" to slow things down a bit - leading into a middle half that is not quite stomper, but not quite power ballad (although the driving "Someone Like You" certainly amps things back up to frenetic pace once again) before floating back down to easygoing, sunset-on-the-beach-with-your-lover peace and tranquility of "Run Wild". Is Sumner the best lyricist on the world? No. But as the aforementioned transition, build, and peaceful comedown prove, you don't have to be when you know the music this well.

7 - Oasis - "Dig Out Your Soul"

The Gallagher brothers have, in the time between this album released and my writing this, split company - this time, perhaps, for good, for real. If so, it would be a shame, because this album rings with the sound of a band finding its way again after a troubled middle age. They stormed the radio on both sides of the atlantic with the catchy "Wonderwall", "Champagne Supernova", and even a little more with the melancholy stuck-in-your-head yearner "Don't Go Away" - after that, everything went to hell. "Standing on the shoulder of giants" began a string of albums where they couldn't decide what to be - psychedelic grunge-rockers, oasis mark 2 mixed with vocals that seemed intentionally squawked through the microphones to imitate..god only knows what, but it sounded awful. "Don't Believe The Truth" showed a glimmer of good things to come, and the better things showed fruit with "Dig Out your soul" - it is Oasis doing what they do best. The psychedelia and coke-binge-wrecked slide guitar over-drives are sheared away, and in place is strong britpop funneled through the swagger only the Gallagher brothers do so well. From the grinding stomp of "Bag It Up" and on through the gutteral assault of "Shock of the lightning" this disc excels. Even if "To Be Where There's Life" steers a tad TOO beatle-esque for the band's own good, this one shows them figuring out how to make good music again. Perhaps Beady Eye, the Liam-helmed group formed after Noel split with the group, will produce something even 1/4 as good. One can only hope.

2016 Edit to the above - those who know my tastes will recall my high praise for Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - and note that Beady Eye has since disbanded.  Guess we know who won there.

6 - The Verve - "Forth"

Known mostly for the stones-sampling, simplicity-driven-video-having "Bittersweet Symphony", the Verve have a recognition point, even if most paid little attention after that hit had faded from memory. The internal bickering broke the group up, and most figured that was it.
But when the bickering stops, McCabe, Jones, Salisbury, and Ashcroft can mash together sonic bliss when they come together, which they did many years later. The opening couplet "Sit And Wonder" folding into the hooky space-pop of "Love Is Noise" send a resounding "We're back" message. The album isn't a greatest hits disc, but it does manage to play to all their strengths. We have the slow balladry of "Rather Be" and "Judas" to ease the mind (or disturb it, depending how you interpret the lyrics). We have the sleepy, jumbled "Numbness" that reorganizes in time for "I See Houses" only to cut into the pinnacle of this disc's energy "Noise Epic". This song lives up to its name, but how sweet the noise it is. The final 2 minutes of this track explode into a frenzied guitar & drum assault, with Ashcroft's vocals falling all over the place like rocks in a landslide, that pulls you into the speakers and DEMANDS you pay attention. It's hard not to feel a bit pummeled by this, but in a good way. The glacial closer "Appalaichan Springs" later moves this all down to a nice, even-handed close. IF you gave up on the Verve as one hit wonders back in 1997 - consider this a worthy return and worth picking up. A 2nd opinion is definitely worth it.

5 - Gorillaz - "Demon Days"

This album earns its place this high on the list for its resurgence factor. When it came out, I heard "Feel Good Inc.", liked it..but thought the rest of the album just ok. Years later I gave it a better chance and it resonates now moreso than it did before. It stood the test of time and became something more meaningful when given the chance. Reviewers have spoken of Damon Albarn as a man with good ideas, but a man who needs someone to help him focus those ideas, find the best of those good ideas, and weed out the rubbish. Danger mouse proves adept in doing this, as between his production skill and Albarn's knack for weaving dystopian lyrical webs atop the sounds on this album, the blend is perfect, and sounds so good. Ironically, one of the best tracks is the one right before "Feel Good Inc.", the synth & hip-hop blend of "Dirty Harry". Albarn lets the chorus and the rap verse at the end do the talking on this one, and is not only catchy, but sequenced to provide a perfect lead-up to the De La Soul-graced bliss of "Feel Good Inc.". What also places this album so high is the mix - hip hop, britpop, dance, all come together in what might sound like a cluttered mess - but perfect blend is more like it. From start to end, the theme, the idea, shines through, so you not only hear the music, you FEEL it as well. Not an easy hat trick to pull off - and one that Albarn didn't pull off quite as well with the 2010 follow-up "Plastic Beach". Demon Days lives up to the title - it is gritty, lyrically bleak, but musically far above much of what came out in 2005. A worthy addition to this list.

4 - Dido - "Safe Trip Home"

She came out as the trip-hop-lite ballad chanteuse of "Thank You" and "Here With Me" and the voice was inescapable, the songs were all over the place - but they bore the unmistakable streak of "No way lightning will strike twice". Dido has a large gap between each album released thus far (4 years from the first, then 5 from second to third) but this time around, it is more than well worth the wait. On #2, she had reached the limit of what the trip-hop-lite balladry and rougher-edged numbers could do. Safe Trip Home takes the best of what she perfected on the first two, turns it down a notch, mixes in some folk elements, and the results are fantastic.

Here are all subdued, light-flowing tracks, like "Grafton Street" with Mick Fleetwood's quiet, unassuming percussion. And even with this fresh, easygoing quiet, the tempo still kicks up out of the starting gate with the driving force of "Don't Believe In Love". End to end, this album brings together the best of all Dido used to do, and adds a new touch. It still has the trip-hop vibe, but rings far more organic to the ears than her previous efforts do. Mood-wise, the album is a bit more on the downcast side than either of the first, but there are silver linings ("Us 2 Little Gods" being one of them, or the delightful ode to simple pleasures "Let's Do The Things We Normally Do"). Either way, the album comes out a clear sign that this particular wispy-voiced chanteuse hasn't run out of ideas just yet.

3 - Pet Shop Boys - "Yes"

It starts off with "Love etc.", a track PSB themselves called "Like nothing we've done before." and right off, I only half agree, even as I hold it up as a great track to open the album with. The beat is simple, the message is classic (the always-relatable "Fame and fortune aren't worth a damn without love" theme) and it manages to work in a fresh spin on their sound, yet still sounds like a full-circle track. They went right back to the 80's, blended a beat-sensibility with hooks and production tricks of the current day, and made a great kick-off. Things continue swimmingly with "All over the world" which builds its hook off....Tchaikovsky...yes, you read that right, Tchaikovsky. It sounds like madness, but the brief snippet of the nutcracker suite sounds delightful - at once instantly familiar, and yet, tweaked into a pop sensibility. Most bands trying something like this would fall flat on their face doing such a thing - the 'boys pull it off with a deceptive "We've been doing this for nearly 30 years" ease.

Lyrically, "Beautiful people" seemingly contradicts the opener in message - good song, but a bit off-place. They also pull off a better use of Johnny Marr - the guitar antics heard on Release often felt tacked-on and out of place, here they borrow a trick Depeche Mode used well on "Stripped" - using guitar chords to open a song, but then carefully let them take a back seat to the synths swirling around, as they do in "Did you see me coming?". "Vulnerable" mines a theme they've done a few too many times perhaps, but when they do it this well, you can forgive them for that. "Pandemonium" feels yet again like a beat borrowed, but still manages to stand on its own two feat as a joyful romp about a couple whose relationship is out of control - and both of whom like it that way, thank you very much.

End to end, it is pure pop bliss, earning it this, near-the-top status on this countdown.

2 - 311 - "Uplifter"

June 2, 2009 saw the release of 311's 9th "Uplifter". In the weeks preceding, I saw that Bob Rock was on as producer. After several widely-considered-travesties (St. Anger, anyone?) or just plain boring discs(The Offspring's Rise & Fall), I was concerned. Thankfully, for no reason. His presence does dial up the crunch, but it's still a strong set.

It opens with the celebratory "Hey You!" and segues right into the relaxed-but-still-crunchy "It's Alright" and it's clear this is both a celebration/party album and a mellow relax-a-thon all in one. They have taken a shine back towards reggae-mellow-out tracks the last few albums, and this one has a few gems in that category. "2 Drops In The Ocean" and "My Heart Sings" are both pleasant, well played, and serve nicely to balance things out. These are the kind of songs many fans aren't crazy about (2 I talked to at the concert weren't, that's certain). To each his own on that, I still say it rounds out the mix nicely. It would be boring if it were 12 songs of schmaltz, just the same as it would if it were an album with 12 clones of the driving crunch-blast of "India Ink". Variety is the spice of life.

Others have noted this album is a bit lyrically skewed for the live set, which makes some songs sound off listening to at home, yet better in concert. I was fortunate to catch them in concert at SPAC on 6/23, and I agree, they do sound better with the energy of the crowd to buoy them along. None are bad songs, just that they work better in concert. And it goes a long way toward giving them a burst of fresh air - Saint produced some classic 311 discs, but under his work on the boards 311 was starting to sound like an endless loop of their best moments - so the burst of fresh air and upbeat rock energy is just what was needed here.

1 - Depeche Mode - "Playing The Angel"

Those who know me would be tempted to say bias alone pushed this one to the top of the list. Almost true, but not quite. This disc lands itself this far up for a wide host of reasons. Depeche Mode managed to rise from the ashes of Gahan's almost-death from an OD in the mid 90's with Ultra, a murky, grinding piece of haunted beauty. They continued making music, but the stuttering chopped-up glitch collages of Exciter almost derailed the momentum. There were tracks where it worked, which were great, but the ones where it failed almost made the album unlistenable. So whatever they put out next would be under greater scrutiny to plenty of ears.

What they did was collect all the best things they've done and go to the next step for, as the back album cover offers "Pain and suffering in various tempos". Ben Hillier on the boards this time around led to much more use of distorted synths wrapped with more organic instruments. The overly-programmed and disjointed choppiness of Exciter was gone, and in its place a more deft marriage of the digital, analog, and everything in between.

From the crash of the opener "A Pain That I'm Used To", this change is evident, and on through the driving "John The Revelator" and the "Halo"-aping "Suffer Well" and "The Sinner In Me". After this quartet of tracks fades out, the rolling guitar licks of "Precious" slide in atop a beat that sticks in your head long after the last notes fade. Rarely do songs about the end of a relationship sound so upbeat and catchy as they do here. Moving along, the disc continues to show new depth, with Gahan picking up the pen for the trippy and haunting "I Want It All" - which segues through ballads of even more haunting gloom ("Damaged People") into a brief nod to their heavy-dance laden past "Lillian" and closing with the short-on-lyrics-but-long-on-effect "The Darkest Star". Every album on this list ended up here because it works as a whole, no track to skip, every song fits together to make up a cohesive set. This one does that, and a whole lot more - Gahan, Gore, and Fletcher still have worthwhile music within them. It is a delight for the ears end to end. It is a disc few would expect a band 25 years into their career to produce - those things and more come together to earn it #1 on this list.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Taking a Getaway to a better kind of pepper.

When discussing the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, change-via-era is often a heavy part of the discussion.  Was 1 Hot Minute an overlooked gem or a disaster with Dave Navarro replacing the eccentric, mercurial, but undoubtedly talented John Frusciante?  And what of the Peppers after Frusciante left a second time?  It's the kind of thing that is appropriate, but can be too much of a running tangent.

With their 2016 release "The Getaway" which is album number 2 featuring Josh Klinghoffer replacing Frusciante after his second departure, they've found their groove again.  Their first with Klinghoffer, 2011's "I'm With You" showed that their new choice clearly could do the job well, and while not Frusciante, had a style all his own to bring to the Peppers' music.  On The Getaway, they make the wise choice of changing producers, bringing in Danger Mouse to man the boards.  Some long time fans mourn the loss of the raw, dirty, hyper-kinetic sound of the band in their pre-Blood Sugar Sex Magick days.  Whether it is the production cojones of Danger Mouse or just the Peppers finding a new stride late career to credit to this change, the transformation is real, and it paints a fine way forward.  The Getaway recaptures some of the raw fury of their early days, and blends that with a lived-in, easygoing sense of calm and peace.  2 of the 3 principal members are in their 50's, and it wouldn't make sense to be trying to re-hash the randy anthems of their younger days.  The shift in mood suits them, but at the same time lets them flex their talents.  Danger Mouse' production lets this shine through much better as well - from Flea's bass licks opening up lead single "Dark Necessities" and looping along to neatly tie up later track "Feasting on the flowers" - on this album, all 4 of the band members get to shine equally.  Not to knock on Rubin, he is a worthy producer, but Danger Mouse seems to get where the band is in the current day and tailors the soundscape to match with much more precision.  Kiedis' lyrics are as inscrutable as ever in places, but when the rich, luscious music layered around them sounds as good as it does on "The Getaway" - most listeners would be hard pressed to worry about that.  Definitely recommended.

Click here and check out lead single "Dark Necessities"

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Yes, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds Concert was THAT GOOD!!!

Yes, it was, and this is why:

Went to see Noel Gallagher last night at the Beacon Theater in NYC. I didn't catch them live when he was still 1/2 of the 2 lead singers of Oasis but whatever - he not only put on an amazing show, had great audience rapport. The current leg of his North American tour is ongoing - if it crosses by your point in the universe and tickets are still available, GO. You WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.  They blended a deft mix of new material and old favorites, to deliriously amazing effect.  And.....

Last night's show? The crowd, and me along with them, before they returned for the encore, joined in an over the top a capella rendition of the Oasis track "Don't Go Away" - the classic plea, hoping a crowd call will push the song into the set. It didn't, but the look on Noel Gallagher's face as he and the band came back on stage to actually DO the encore? Priceless, and something I won't forget. And yes, they ended the show with one that is an old as time Oasis staple, but it was one Noel sang, and they nailed it, and the energy was impulsive and addictive. And yeah, this is it. I will never cease to be amazed and humbled by how amazing live music can make an entire room full of [mostly] strangers join together in celebration and happiness.

Oasis - Don't Look Back In Anger

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review of Meghan Trainor "Thank You"

As soon as the strident, in-your-face beat of lead single "No" hits the speakers, 1 thing is clear: Meghan Trainor is wearing her take-no-shit-from-anyone aura with extra flair on album number 2.  The doo-wop stylings of her debut album are mostly excised from the proceedings this time around.  This is the album's biggest strength and weakness all at once.  She avoids sounding like she went out of her way to simply re-tread what shot her to fame in the first place.  That said, at times this album feels like she tried too hard to steer the sound away from her debut - almost as if she is now reluctant to dance with the one that brought her.

After the triple threat opening salvo of "Watch Me Do", "Me Too" and "No," Trainor calms things down a bit with "Better."  Yo Gotti's verse seems a bit shoehorned in, but it fits the track, and overall gives a nice break from the frenetic tempo of the opening 3 tracks.  "Hopeless Romantic" provides a firm reminder of what is sorely missing from this album.  Trainor's father reportedly asked her why a few of his favorite selections from recording sessions didn't make the final cut, to which Meghan told him, in essence, that she couldn't make the album all ballads.  "Hopeless Romantic" proves how well she can do with slower songs.  Indeed, they are a refreshing break from the confident ice princess persona she blends into most of her more powerful tracks.  "Kindly Calm Me Down" keeps this strong streak going, showing that even the super-confident heroine of "Woman Up" has her vulnerable moments.  It shines musically, too - with a grandiose rise-and-fall dynamic that just begs to be part of a live set list, complete with an arena full of fans swaying along, singing along to every word.

Even as Trainor shows some vulnerability in places, it's enough to make the listener wish the album was a bit more balanced.  There is nothing wrong with confidence and strength projected in song.  Taken as individual pieces, most of these songs work well within that context.  Stretched out over an entire album, it can seem like she's tilling the same ground over and over again, and makes her music sound a bit myopic.  Her debut album worked the balance between empowering anthems and light hearted pop fun far better than Thank You does.  Trainor mostly makes it easy to overlook these quibbles because of her personality, and the infectious energy she puts into all her music.  Having worked with Ricky Reed as producer this outing, showing a willingness to step outside the box, one can't help but wonder what a Meghan Trainor + Starsmith produced effort might sound like (Starsmith being 1 of several behind Betty Who's stunning debut effort "Take Me When You Go.")  Perhaps even a duet between the 2 singers.  Any number of amazing combinations could be forged between Trainor and her contemporaries.  Returning to "Thank You" to wrap things up - in spite of the subject matter tunnel vision on display in places, it is still a tasty pop-R&B treat, worth recommending to fans, new or old.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A peek into Zayn's mind on his solo debut

Zayn Malik has already stated he never truly felt “comfortable” with the music One Direction recorded, even going so far as to say he was forced to re-record vocals if a take sounded too “R&B.” Simple fact is, those words paint a picture of someone wanting to stretch out a bit.  On “Mind Of Mine,” Zayn steps out of the shadow of One Direction for the most part, delivering a decidedly pop-infused R&B album.

Sequenced as it is, the album gets the “I’m a man now” statement out of the way right out of the gate after a brief intro.  “Pillowtalk” is classic steamy-lothario R&B filtered through Zayn’s vocal stylings and James Ryan Ho’s production style.  As the style goes, it’s been done before, but it gives a refreshing burst of energy to set the tone for the rest of the album.  Gone are the restrained vocal takes of the group he once called himself a part of, and in their place are impassioned, over the top vocals.  Not quite into Adam Lambert-level glamazon over the top, but getting close to it.  And immediately following that, the steamy-lothario mantle drops away and the crooning heart-throb comes out.  “It’s You” is yet another baldly transparent bid by Zayn to show he can do something other than the buffed-to-an-inch-of-their-life pop vocals most know him for.  Transparent, yes, but the hitch here is, he pulls it off, so obvious though it may be, it works, and provides a fine counterpoint to the steamy vibe of the first track.

The best, and at times worst, thing about this album, is that Zayn is too busy trying to be a chameleon.  Is he the steamed up mid-20-something sexpot of “Wrong”?  Is he the trying-to-be-Sinatra-with-a-falsetto crooner of “Fool For You”?  The mood jumps and shifts enough to make the album feel unfocused.  Not to say these moments aren’t well executed for the most part, with a few expected stumbles which one would expect from a debut album (“Lucozade” is one of them, as the track never really picks up steam, just kind of shows up and fizzles out.)  Also, one of the more solid moments, the propulsive earworm “Like I Would” is a deluxe-edition only track - a decision that is a bit of a head scratcher.  

Overall, Zayn has done an admirable job of stepping out of the shadows of his previous group.  Reports have indicated he is already hard at work on a follow up.  “Mind of Mine” shows promise - it is simply trying too hard to be too many different flavors of pop glossed R&B for every kind of listener.  To some extent, it reflects the man behind the music - Zayn left One Direction [according to reports] to be able to live a “normal” life.  The scattered moods found here suggest that he got tired of normal rather quickly.  Looking ahead, even though this approach is a worthwhile effort to avoid being stagnant, (see the 1-note 1-subject slogs of boring cheesed up sexuality that are most of R. Kelly’s work over the last decade for an example of stagnant) going all over the map to avoid that curse can be a curse all its own.  Sharpening the focus for album number 2 could reveal a truly exceptional slice of this particular flavor of music - time will tell if Zayn and all involved manage to pull it off or not.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review of Steven Page "Heal Thyself Part 1 - Instinct"

6 years on from his first post BNL release of Page One, Steven Page is in a strange place.  His bio blurb describes an artist who isn’t feeling comfortable calling himself an artist (more at  This suggests an album from a man who isn’t exactly comfortable in his own skin, yet still suggests someone with a strong message to get across.  The approach mostly works on his second post-BNL release “Heal Thyself, Part One.”

Intro “There’s A Melody I” is a swift rumination on trying to get that perfect note, and could almost play as a veiled explanation to the gap between albums.  Things kick right off into “The Work At Hand” and “Here’s What It Takes” - both songs spin lively, fast-moving tales that fit in neatly with the album’s title, as both are chock full of Page’s wry observations on how to improve oneself, injected with the kind of wit that is unmistakably his.  Elsewhere, he channels a Beatles-meets-Beach Boys 60’s pop vibe on the elegant “If That’s Your Way” - a song that plays like a kind of sequel to the delightfully awkward “All The Young Monogamists” from Page One.

Page’s sardonic wit is still a strong instrument, but he occasionally dips back into a well he’s been in far too many times before.  “Mama” is an amusing vaguely political-satire driven lark, but some of the quips are too obvious, such as “The liberals will take your guns / And then they’ll take your children and the terrorists have won” -- too much of a callback to the right-wing-skewering venom of earlier BNL track “Fun & Games” - a moment where this kind of zinger is deployed in a far more effective manner.  Lead single and just-past midway marker is a burst of fresh air - “Surprise, Surprise” shows Page shaking off his demons and extolling the virtues of finding your way back from rock bottom.  Refreshingly, this time around, the sentiment is more universal, where before it was tinged with not-so-thinly veiled jabs at his former bandmate Ed Robertson.

Bottom line, Heal Thyself Part 1:Instinct is an album worth the wait, with some reservations.  Tagged as Part 1, it gives the impression that the upcoming Part 2 will have gems of its own, along with a handful of uneven tracks.  This suggests a classic setup - the best of the 2 parts could be collected to form a truly amazing album all on their own - listeners will have to wait till part 2 arrives to see if this theory holds up.  In the meantime, for BNL fans who’ve missed his presence in the band since he left, or just Steven Page fans antsy for new songs, “Heal Thyself Part 1:Instinct” is still worth a look.