As it often happens when compiling the year-end favorite list, a few discoveries don’t reveal themselves till after deadline. At this point, none of these albums pose a threat to anything on the 2015 list, but that may change.
Software Giant, We Are Overcome
I thought Chicago singer-songwriter Dylan Rice had fallen off a corner of the earth. He released his second solo album in 2010, then seemingly disappeared. As it turned out, he joined a band in 2013, which then went on to unleash its debut album We Are Overcome in 2015.
Billing itself as “Less Claypool sitting in with Kraftwerk”, Software Giant reminds me more of the grunge jazz of Wayne Horvitz’s early ’90s outfit Pigpen. The music is a bit too human for its mechanistic aspirations — Morrissey singing with New Order is another description — but we can forgive the band for having a live drummer instead of a machine. Rice has the kind of gorgeous croon that makes me wish he were more prolific.
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
PBR&B is a pretty awful term, but it’s succinct in describing the kind of R&B music that appeal to rockist snobs such as myself.
Various recommendations led me to the Weeknd. Beauty Behind the Madness has slowly seeped into my consciousness. I find myself humming portions of the album during those rare moments when no music is playing on my devices.
The collaborative approach to this split album works incredibly well. Rather than devote one side to each band, Gaytheist and Rabbits exchange songs and band members throughout. It ends up sounding like the work of one unit, a true case of the sum being greater than the parts.
Andrew Norman, Play, Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Ask yourself what an orchestra would sound like performing Naked City’s Torture Garden.
After a sputtering relaunch in 2014, I finally achieved a bit of a groove in 2015. The decision to publish weekly is just the right pace for me, and in reality, I would stockpile entries for weeks at a time, then dole them out one by one.
This method allowed me large chunks of time to enjoy listening to music for the joy of it instead of trying to find content for this site. In this way, new entries would show up on the site at regular intervals, even if my work on them happened in spurts.
Well, I’ve run out of entries.
I’ve been taking some music classes, studying Japanese on my own and even did a bit of travelling this past fall, which squeezed out time to write. Rather than scramble to fill January, I’m going to let the site go a bit barren for the rest of the month.
We’re half way into the second decade of the 2000s, and I haven’t seen much punditry on what albums have been emblematic of the decade. It’s probably because listening habits have moved on from albums even if the release cycle hasn’t.
My friend will be disappointed to learn I consider 2010 the start of the decade, so I’ll restrict my list to its first five years with 2010 included (i.e. 2010-2014.)
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Elephant” pretty much sold me on this album, and everything else was just seduction.
Tokyo Jihen, Sports: Shiina Ringo loosened her writing monopoly with the band, which then internalized her style to produce its best album.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things: Part of me thinks this album is actually better than Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean: Does what it says on the tin very, very beautifully
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: WHERE YOU AT FRANK??
D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: So many of my friends lost their shit when this album was released that I had to hear it for myself.
Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe: I love her music, but damn, her videos are disturbing.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds of Country Music: What happens to country music when it ingests hallucinogens.
Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now: Thank you, Mark Ronson, for bringing Duran Duran back to itself.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS: Getting Shiina Ringo to write a few tracks is a sure way for Japanese actresses to grab my attention.
I didn’t think a comeback this year could top the return of Sleater-Kinney, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize how much I had missed Janet Jackson till she returned, and Enya quenched a drought of a similar length (7 years.) Even Madonna turned in work that’s some of her best in a while. I also learned the awful term “PBR&B”, which describes the kind of R&B music to which I seem to be drawn.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical: The last time the score of a musical had me riveted to my stereo was The Phantom of the Opera. Not only is the story of Hamilton thrilling to follow, but the hip-hop score is jaw-dropping. Policy debates as rap battles? Maybe that should happen in real life.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Just about every year-end list will include this album near the top. And I don’t even listen that much hip-hop.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: It’s always great to see an artist with a breakthrough album follow up with something just as strong.
Björk, Vulnicura: So now the question is which do you prefer: Vulnicura or Vulnicura Strings?
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift: I like how Jarell Perry keeps pushes the borders of what R&B can do. He’s got great company with Shaprece, Santigold, Miguel and Frank Ocean, WHEREVER THE HELL HE IS.
Steve Grand, All-American Boy: I still don’t understand why people call him a country artist. He sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson.
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable: Janet returns with her most sonically diverse album since The Velvet Rope.
Miguel, Wildheart: He bragged about being better than Frank Ocean, and I hate to say it, but I think there’s something behind that bravado.
Honorable mention goes to …
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods: Duran Duran tends to misstep after hitting a home run, but that’s not the case here.
Enya, Dark Sky Island: You know what you’re getting with Enya. On a few tracks, she does seem to be dipping a tentative toe into more pop styles, by which I mean less Bach.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett crams a lot of imagery in her songs, but they make for great stories.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future: When ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION take time with their albums, it really pays off.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: No, this isn’t an international crossover album. If anything, it’s some of the most challenging music the quartet has recorded in a while.
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 / Varese: Ameriques: This album is something of a souvenir for me because I attended this concert, but the live recording of Ameriques would be reason enough to pick it up.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty: I didn’t think this album would be very distinct from MONO, but it’s quite a change for Taka and still recognizably him.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear: This album will also appear on a lot of year-end lists, but it didn’t grab me as much as everything else on the list.
Concert reviews were always something I wanted to write for this site, but I never drummed up the gumption to jot down my thoughts about shows after I attend them. In reality, I didn’t want shows to become means to an end, in the same way album purchases had become source for reviews.
Still, I go to a lot of concerts, and it feels awkward not mentioning them at least once.
So I’m going to do a year-end overview of all the shows I’ve attended in the past year.
I bought this album on cassette tape because the band’s name intrigued me: We Are Going to Eat You. I had no way to know whether the band’s only album, Everywhen, would be a gem or dud. It was 1990, and the idea of “listening stations” had only just begun to take hold.
So I took the plunge and got the album on faith. It was … actually pretty decent.
But it had stiff competition with other releases that year. Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels, Sonic Youth’s Goo, Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining — these albums nearly shut out everything else spinning in my Walkman.
Everywhen was a solid college rock album with proper English post-punk guitars and a woman singer with shades of Nico in her voice. Nothing on the album screamed radio hit — not even on college radio — but give it enough spins, and the tunes could sink in.
My brother, in a fit of exploration, listened to this tape, then went out and bought the CD.
The move surprised me.
I thought Everywhen was good, not great, but I didn’t think something so obviously alt-rock would fit in his collection of Hawaiian pop and classic rock. He liked the album more than I did.
That pretty much ended the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race, and it wouldn’t be the last time our tastes would intersect and influence each other.
Our collections are still very distinctive — mine in the deeper end of weird, his firmly planted in pop.
But I sent him a CD with some Bonnie Pink tracks, and he would go on to buy up her entire catalog. He introduced me to Utada Hikaru, while it took time for him to warm up to Shiina Ringo.
My copy of Everywhen disappeared with my cassette collection back in 2002. Of course, nothing really disappears on the Internet, and a simple web search led me back to the album.
When I was 18 years old, I wanted all my music discoveries to change my life. Everywhen didn’t do that, and I let it go. These days, I’m not chasing after that dopamine high, and if an album is something I can enjoy every time I put it on, I keep it.
In the case of Everywhen, I’ve actually welcomed it back.
No, that linkbait headline isn’t talking about the current cachet of vinyl records. It’s comparing compact discs to vinyl in the 1990s, when the former started to edge out the latter in retailer shelf space.
I saw it happen gradually throughout my years in high school, and it’s weird seeing history repeat itself on the very thing that ushered in that change.
Week after week, a row of record bins in my favorite music shops would yield to compact discs. By the time I graduated, CDs had nearly taken over entire stores. Classical sections had surrendered months beforehand. In 1992, all stores reconfigured their bins exclusively for compact discs. Remember the longbox? It was a stop-gap measure to allow CDs to be stocked in bins designed for vinyl records.
That was the day vinyl was supposed to die.
Of course, it didn’t die. Vintage vinyl migrated to thrift shops, second-hand stores and special conventions. Independent bands kept the format alive all throughout the compact disc’s reign. I’m not going to analyze why the format rebounded. I’m just going to be thankful it did.
But turnabout is fair play for the compact disc. When I worked at Waterloo Records in the early 2000s, vinyl records occupied one aisle of bins. By the time I moved from Austin to Seattle 10 years later, vinyl records took up the entire second room of the store.
Stores in Seattle show the same symptoms. I’ve seen rows of CDs turn into rows of vinyl at Everyday Music and Sonic Boom. Spin Cycle Records doesn’t even stock CDs.
So what’s happening to all those aluminum discs? Pretty much, the same thing that happened to vinyl.
First, labels stopped pressing discs. New releases still show up on CD, but catalog titles have either gone out of print or are offered as print-on-demand. As a result, inventory in stores becomes second-hand.
Waterloo used to separate used discs from unopened inventory. That changed in the middle of the aughts. On my last visit to the store, Waterloo reflected the reality of music shops everywhere — used discs outnumbered new ones.
Vinyl went through a similar trough in the ’90s. The glut of unwanted LPs meant bargain hunters and adherents to the format could go hunting. They pillaged the thrift shops and second-hand stores of prime catalog titles, setting up the collector’s market that would eventually inflate the price of vinyl.
I’m starting to see signs that CDs have reached that point where prices on used discs are starting to inflate. Inflation has already hit unopened discs.
Camelcamelcamel.com tracks Amazon pricing on products over time. Some of the titles on my list have hit the $0.01 mark, but that time has long past. One example: a Nonesuch recording of Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts at one time reached a low of $3.61 for a used copy. It’s currently selling for about $60. An unopened copy sells for $360.
What does that mean for the future of the format? Will we see compact discs priced more expensively than they were?
CDs are becoming collectibles now, so yes, some titles will be exorbitantly priced. Most will end up in bargain bins.
The role of hardware manufacturers is seldom discussed in the fate of formats. Vinyl didn’t go away because the players didn’t completely disappear from electronic stores. Cassette tape decks and VHS players didn’t fare as well. As long as there are CD players made, there will be CDs to play them.
I don’t imagine CDs having a resurgence the way vinyl has. The last transition went from one physical format to another physical format. The current transition has gone from physical to ephemeral.
If such a renaissance were to occur, perception would need to put focus back on the benefits of the compact disc. Market forces have moved away from the concept of ownership, but that may change when titles start disappearing from people’s streaming libraries.
I can picture it — a listener falls in love with an artist’s music. She adds that artist to her streaming library. The artist has a squabble, and the rights to that music come into question. It disappears from the library. The listener scrambles to find that artist elsewhere, but all traces have been scrubbed from all digital vendors. Now what?
This scenario is why I have doubled down on physical formats. My collection has actually grown, and bargains are pretty abundant right now.
Back in college, I put forth a theory to my friends that the whatever version of a classical or theater work you encounter first will be your canonical version.
This theory arose during a discussion about which version of the Evita soundtrack each of us preferred. One camp chose the concept album recorded before the show was staged in London. I opted for the Premiere American Recording with Patti LuPone in the title role.
So I posed the question: which did you hear first?
Sure enough, my friends heard the London recording before the American recording, and it was the reverse case for me.
It’s not a theory I’ve put to rigorous study, but there’s an intuitive logic to it.
Classical music requires a lot of work to internalize, and when I’m listening to a particular work for the first time, that recording becomes my source. I’ll have listened to it numerous times, absorbing not only the workings of the piece but also the idiosyncrasies of the recording — the sound of the hall, the articulation of the players, the tempo and expressive choices of the conductor.
If I’ve lived with one recording for long enough, another recording of the same piece needs to go through that same process of internalization. And that first listen of a new version is where the discomfort sets in.
The sound of the orchestra lacks a certain resonance. A particularly movement was taken too slow or too fast. A particular section gets muted while another gets overemphasized.
I learned this lesson with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 and Lieutenant Kije Suite.
Back in 1988, I bought a cassette of André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Symphony No. 1 and Kije took up side one. Symphony No. 7 took up side two.
I got rid of the cassette in 2002, and I thought I could replace it with any old budget recording of the same works. So I picked up one by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
It didn’t feel right.
The nuances of Previn and the London Symphony had soaked so far into my subconscious that another interpretation just wouldn’t suffice. I let the Ormandy recording go and didn’t seek another one till I found a vinyl version of the Previn recording in 2013.
That sent me on a hunt for a CD version. I was disappointed to learn it was reissued in the United Kingdom but not in the United States. A number of Google searches later eventually led me to a used copy of its original reissue on CD in the States in 1986.
Hearing that specific recording transported me back to high school, when I would listen to that tape on bus rides back home.
This preference for the first-encountered recording probably explains listeners’ aversions to live recordings and covers. Could Sam Smith really live up to the distinct quiver of Tracy Chapman’s voice on “Fast Car”? And just how does one replicate the gorgeous choir of Simon Le Bons on “New Religion” in a live setting?
My collection now has numerous recordings of pieces, and I’ve learned to appreciate “non-canonical” versions on their own terms. In some rare instances, I may even prefer an alternate version.
But that first time, that first encounter — it’s home, and there’s no place like it.
My dedication to Duran Duran is probably far above average compared to the non-Duranie population at large, but I’m friends with Duranies who make my fandom look half-assed.
So I was surprised Duran Duran’s Demo 1979 even existed when I spotted it at Jive Time Records. Of course, I imagined my Duranie friends would have known about this bootleg for decades.
Demo 1979 predates the involvement of Andy Taylor and Simon Le Bon. Steve Wickett’s off-kilter warble places these four tracks closer to the band’s punk roots. The hook for “Girls on Film” was already in place, but the song that would eventually become “Rio” had a completely different melody and went by the title “See Me Repeat Me”.
John Taylor and Roger Taylor hadn’t yet achieved their trademark rhythmic seamlessness, but at that early stage, you could hear it coming together. Nick Rhodes had far more gear to acquire before his portion of the sound could expand.
Back in 2010, Capitol reissued Duran Duran’s early catalog with a number of demos, including a vocal version of “Tel Aviv”. I thought those demos were a great insight to how the band works.
Demo 1979 goes even further. It opens up the idea of an alternate reality where Le Bon never became the band’s singer. Would they have conquered the world with anything other than Fab Five? I hesitate to imagine.