Back in October, I attended a conference in Chicago and stayed with my sister to save on hotel costs. When I’ve visited her in the past, I would pretty much ride along wherever they went, not really getting a sense of her neighborhood.
This time around, I scheduled a day where I would explore the city by myself, visiting as many record stores as I could before the conference started. Thankfully, almost all these stores had websites with searchable inventory, so I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to find.
Reckless Records has three locations, and somehow I managed to hit all three during my stay. Real estate in the city’s core is tight, so Reckless optimizes its space by filing only the CD booklets in its bins. That leaves floor space for records. I spent a lot of time on the store’s web site searching through my various wish lists and managed to find everything I’d intended to get. It’s probably the best way to shop because flipping through a stack of paper booklets is a lot more challenging than flipping through a bin of jewel cases. The Wicker Park and Lakeview locations are much larger than the location in the Loop, so I would recommend visiting those shops first.
I didn’t find anything on my shopping list at Dusty Grooves, but I do like the store’s layout. CDs take up the perimeter of the floor with records bins in the center. Disc cases are labeled with enough an artists name to scan quickly through an alphabetized section. For example, I looked for Bill Frisell in the jazz section and could quickly find approximately where he would be filed just by looking for the first three letters of his last name. Dusty Groove’s inventory gave off a very curated vibe — it’s not as thorough as the stock at Reckless, but it is diverse.
I had bought two copies of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 conducted by Sir Colin Davis, and both had a lot of surface noise. Shuga Records’ web site indicated it had a copy, so I stopped by to see if I could grab it. It wasn’t on the floor, but the clerk at the counter did find it for me in a back room. The floor space is about half the size of Dusty Groove and the Wicker Park Reckless location, so it makes sense that some stock won’t be on the floor. As it turns out, the third time was the charm — Shuga’s copy of the Sibelius first symphony is the one I’m keeping.
Jazz Record Mart
I found a longbox at Jazz Record Mart. It was a copy of Where in the World? by the Bill Frisell Band, and if I didn’t already own the disc, I would have bought it. Jazz Record Mart was the most impressive store in my visit for its size and its focus. The floor space was easily as big if not larger than Reckless, but as its name indicates, the stock is almost entirely jazz. I went down the list of Naked City alumni and found everyone — Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, Joey Baron and John Zorn himself. There’s a tiny section for modern classical music and a cursory row for rock. But if you want jazz, this shop will have it.
My first reaction as I compiled this entry was, “Yay! Some of my favorite artists are releasing new music!” My second reaction was, “Why are they all waiting till April?”
Explosions in the Sky, The Wilderness, April 1
Take Care, Take Care, Take Care tread familiar territory and felt a bit worn out. The preceding single from this new album, “Disintegration Anxiety”, sounds like the band is aiming for a new sound. I hope it’s a successful effort.
Duran Duran, Girls on Film – 1979 Demo, April 1
Andy Wickett offers a CD-R of the 1979 Duran Duran demo, but it looks like he’s licensed it to Cleopatra for a proper reissue.
Ben Watt, Fever Dream, April 8
I find it fascinating how Ben Watt has spent years building his DJ creds, but his solo work so far has nothing to do with the club.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth, April 15
Sturgill Simpson + concept album via Marvin Gaye = Take my money, please!
Rufus Wainwright, Take All My Loves: Nine Shakespeare Sonnets, April 22
I put more stock in Rufus Wainwright’s classical creds than any other pop star because his first effort in the genre was a full-blown opera.
UA, JaPo, May 11
I wondered where UA has been. She deserved a long break after more than a decade of releasing albums year after year. But which UA are we going to get — the adventurer or the tunesmith?
Ty Herndon, TBD, May 15
At the end of his El Corazón acoustic set back in Feb. 2016, Ty Herndon announced his new album would arrive on May 15, his first since coming out in 2014.
Sade, The Best of Sade, March 11
I already have the first three Sade albums on vinyl, and this compilation pretty much covers those albums. I don’t really need this record, but … I want it.
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, March 18
Has it really been more than a decade since Loretta Lynn did that whole thing with Jack White?
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable, April 1
I imagine all the clogged up record pressing plants prevented this album from being released at the same time as the CD.
Sonic Youth, Sister, April 8
Gradus ad Daydream Nation.
Patty Griffin, 1000 Kisses, April 15
This reissue will do nicely till Flaming Red gets somewhere on the release schedule.
If I stuck around just a few months more, I would have been an eMusic subscriber for a decade. Instead, I canceled my membership at the end of December 2015.
I also had a low-level Spotify subscription for about the price of a fancy drink at Starbucks every month, but I realized I only even launch the Spotify desktop application to update the Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition Playlists. So I canceled that subscription as well.
My streaming service of choice is now Google Play Music.
The music locker pretty much sewed it up for me. When Google Music launched, it offered space for 20,000 songs for free. Amazon had a similar offering with an up-sell to more space, but the size of my music library pretty much steered me in Google’s direction.
It took a number of years to fill that limit, which I did some time in 2013. By then, Google Music became Google Play Music and transformed itself into a streaming service. I signed up for a trial offer and liked the convenience of my uploaded library supplemented with the streaming offerings. I became a paying member and eventually shut out everything else.
eMusic had become an online version of Columbia House, where I had to download something every month to make the subscription worthwhile. I’ve accumulated a lot of digital flotsam and jetsam as a result. In a way, eMusic downloads became my replacement for pre-recorded cassettes, a convenient, sub-prime format to listen to an album. If I liked it enough, I’d buy a copy in a format with higher fidelity.
This idea of a “paid preview” allowed me to support artists on a graduated level — the more I liked the music, the more I would invest. When I signed up for eMusic in 2006, Spotify had only just launched in Europe, but I knew when it reached the US, my days as an eMusic member would be numbered. I’m actually surprised I hadn’t canceled years ago.
As it turned out, I hated the Spotify desktop application. Years of using Winamp and tolerating iTunes conditioned me to resist some of Spotify’s user experience choices. I can’t name them now because I was so thoroughly turned off that I went back to using eMusic and eventually adopted Google Music. But I kept the $5 subscription for fear of missing out on artist exclusives. It took some time before I realized I actually didn’t care for exclusivity in streaming services either. I’m not about to sign up for Tidal just to listen to Prince.
Google Play Music has so far ticked off all the boxes I require in an online music service. The locker stores the albums I own that the streaming service doesn’t provide, which is a lot given my tastes. The streaming service allows me to preview albums I may eventually buy, while throwing a few minuscule cents of royalties in the direction of the artist. I have the convenience of listening to NUMBER GIRL at work or at home, then switch over to a Cathy Dennis album I stream until I’ve made up my mind to buy it.
The only other comparable service would be Amazon Prime and its cloud storage, but the Music Manager desktop applications provided by Google Play Music have pretty much locked me into its platform. I do appreciate AutoRip on those rare occassions the two-day shipping isn’t fast enough.
I won’t consider Apple Music because that means I have to use iTunes. The only time I use iTunes is to manage my iPod. I hate iTunes on Windows more than I hate the Spotify desktop application.
Back in 2015, Nonesuch Records announced a huge reissue campaign for Henryk Górecki to tie in with the premiere release of his posthumous Symphony No. 4.
The reissues included a seven-disc box set of Nonesuch’s Górecki catalog and the vinyl release of his popular Symphony No. 3 featuring Dawn Upshaw. At first, these releases were set for September 2015, but they got pushed back to January 2016.
I fell for Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 like the millions of others who bolstered the album to the top of the classical charts. In the UK, it became a top 10 hit on the pop chart.
The Third Symphony was such a moving work that I was hesitant to explore his other pieces. Kronos Quartet introduced me to Górecki with its recordings of his string quartets, so I already knew the Third Symphony was a stylistic anomaly.
The intensity of Górecki’s work makes them intimidating to approach. When his compositions get quiet, they practically disappear. Then out of nowhere, a cluster of notes fly off the score.
The first movement of the Symphony No. 4 demonstrates this trait well. After three minutes of pounding a single idea, the orchestra gets quiet, almost silent. It’s a brief reprieve because the pounding continues just seconds later. Fiddling with the volume knob is useless.
As such, Górecki became one of those composers about whom I would genuinely be curious but not enough of a fan to get every recording.
The reissue campaign set me on course to change that.
Of the six albums previously released by Nonesuch, I owned half of them: the Third Symphony, and all three string quartets recorded by Kronos. The two albums I never owned were available on streaming services, but the one that wasn’t has the distinction of being the first Górecki album I ever bought: Lerchenmusik.
Lerchenmusik was paired with Kronos’ recording of his first string quartet. When Kronos reissued the first quartet to go along with a new recording his second quartet, I didn’t feel enough of an attachment to Lerchenmusik to hold onto it.
So I tracked a used copy of the album down to remind myself why. The first movement of the piece hugs the noise floor so tightly, you might think the CD was defective. It’s a lengthy work that doesn’t have the staying power of Three Pieces in the Old Style or the Harpsichord Concerto.
Reviews of the Fourth Symphony compared the work to the symphonies preceding the Third. Symphony No. 2 was easy to find, thanks to Naxos’ pervasive presence online and in retail. Symphony No. 1 was more of a challenge.
Koch Schwann released a recording of the First Symphony on the tail Symphony No. 3’s success, but after a series of acquisitions, the label’s catalog remains untapped.
Symphony No. 1 is steeped in modernism, and it establishes the harmonic language that would be the basis of his subsequent symphonies. But the work has few of his trademarks: the dynamic extremes, the folk melodies.
Symphony No. 2 actually hints at what would come in Symphony No. 3, but it employs a more extreme version of the harmonies explored by its predecessor. It starts off brutally but ends beautifully.
As tuneful as the Third may be, the symphonies surrounding it are actually a lot more interesting. They show off how skillfully Górecki could balance the past with the future.
It’s Górecki’s more tonal works, however, that listeners will flock to. When he eases up on the intensity, he can spin a melody. Three Pieces in the Old Style probably rivals the Third Symphony in terms of available recordings.
Yvonne Elliman was one of those artists whose music I heard all over the radio as a child, but I never knew her name.
That changed in high school when I went through my Andrew Lloyd Webber phase. I learned the Hawaii-born singer who originated the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar also formed some of my earliest musical memories.
Elliman, however, had embodied the disco era, and nothing was more uncool in 1988 than listening to disco. I checked out Night Flight from the library but couldn’t get past the first song.
When the recorded music industry transitioned to compact disc in the early ’90s, Elliman wouldn’t get the compilation treatment till 1995. The ABBA renaissance made disco acceptable again, but an actual reissue campaign for Elliman’s albums never became a reality.
It’s a good thing I have a record player, then, because used vinyl copies of her albums are the only way to explore her career with any depth.
If one album ought to get a proper reissue treatment, it would be Love Me.
The album starts off with the three singles that were ubiquitous in my childhood — the title track, “Hello Stranger” and “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind”. Elliman hadn’t completely thrown her hat into the disco ring at this point, so a lot of the tracks on Love Me sound more like California pop than New York dance floor.
“(I Don’t Know Why) I Keep Hangin’ On” has some of the signature marks of disco but nothing on the level of “If I Can’t Have You”. If anything, the dreamy strings of “She’ll Be the Home” and “(Without You) There Ain’t No Love at All” make the album harder to date.
While Love Me was never reissued as an album onto itself, a compilation released in the UK cleverly titled The Collection includes all 10 tracks of Love Me thrown in with seven other tracks from other albums.
So it’s entirely possible to enjoy Love Me without the aid of a record player if you’re willing to track down the compilation in a music store. It’s not currently available on any streaming service.
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.