Wednesday, January 1, 2014

TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2013 (GUARANTEED VAMPIRE WEEKEND-FREE!)

Yes, it's been a really long time since I've been here, updating No Expiration. I'm going to try to return more often in 2014.  You can read a lot of my stuff here at Radio.com, the site I work for (along with a number of websites for CBS owned classic rock, classic hits and Jack stations, along with Chicago's WXRT).

I'm planning on sharing my take on upcoming music events including the GRAMMYs and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as links to some of my interviews, videos and features.  But for now, I'm  returning with my take on the best albums of the year. 

Regarding the headline, I don't really have anything against Vampire Weekend, I am not that familiar with their music (although the few times I've heard their music, it hasn't really kept my attention). I think that they are a "zeitgeist" band - a band who, through a confluence of fans, critical acclaim and an intangible "x factor," are a band who everyone who works in music is expected to pay attention to, and expected to like. That's fine. I definitely like some artists who fall into that category. 

Anyway, I've been having a hard time coming up with an actual order for my favorite albums of the year. In recent years, I've had a handful of albums that rose to the top. In 2007, it was Ben Harper, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Mavis Staples and Robert Plant/Alison Krauss. In 2008, the Foxboro Hot Tubs. In 2009, Bob Dylan, the Cocktail Slippers, Rancid and Levon Helm. 2010, it was the Drive-By Truckers and Mavis Staples. 2011: Social Distortion and Foo Fighters. And last year, Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

This year, I have a number of albums that I've enjoyed, but no clear favorites. But I'll try to put them in some sort of order here. So, let's start already!


1. Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up! Two generations of blues artists come together. The easiest thing in the world would have been to make this a covers album. Instead, Ben (and the guys from his current band) wrote a bunch of songs that should be blues standards in the years to come. I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing them when their album came out, and that was a huge thrill. Shortly after that, I saw them playing a show at Irving Plaza (way too small of a venue for them) and it was mind-blowingly great. Check out my review, with my wife's amazing photos, here. Anyway, I'm curious to see what Ben does next: I'd love to see him reunite with his old band, the Innocent Criminals, in 2014.



2. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks This was one that I thought was really overlooked by music critics. But I realize that a white, angry guy forever connected to the '90s who looks like he could totally kick your ass isn't who critics get behind these days.  But whatever. This album was really innovative. Of course, Trent has to compete with his past, which definitely looms large. Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and The Downward Spiral were all game changers. I don't know that he has another earth shaking record in him like that again. And he isn't that guy anymore: he's married, he has kids, has greyhounds. And yet, I think he's still haunted by every artist who ever disappointed him: he doesn't want to get soft, get boring or sell out. And he doesn't. Not only was this a great album, but he supported it with a great tour: first he did the festival circuit (they pretty much blew everyone away, including Mrs. Carter, at Made In America) and then revamped the band, put together a new stage show and raised the game once again on his headlining tour. Check out my review of that, and (again) my wife's amazing photos, here. I should also mention that his album with How To Destroy Angels was great, and their concerts were amazing too. I can't wait to see what Trent does next.

3. Kanye West - Yeezus Ok, I'm with the critics on this one. And yes, I know he's a douche. I've already written about my first (and only) encounter with him, you can read about it here. Do I buy into any of his hype? No. The Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing retort to his complaints that the fashion world is preventing him from entering their world. I wouldn't look to him as a fashion icon anyway. But what he is great at is making records. Of course, sometimes he needs some help and that was the case here: Rick Rubin exec-produced this album, and I'm sure that was a big factor. But Kanye knows a great track when he produces it, and he knows who to collaborate with (he worked with Daft Punk on "Black Skinhead," a highlight of the album). And he's still a compelling MC. I even like "Bound 2" but let's not talk about the video.

4. Mavis Staples - One True Vine Mavis's second collaboration in a row with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. I don't like this one as much as their last record, You Are Not Alone, but this is still pretty great. Once again, Tweedy wrote the best song on the album. Last time, it was the title track, this time it's "Every Step." As great as the songs that Tweedy writes for Wilco are, I think he saves his best songs for Mavis. Another highlight is the cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That." Mavis is the rare artist who improves with age. I went to see her in concert at New York's City Winery, and it was one of the best shows I saw all year. It made you feel good to be alive.  Thank you Mavis.


5. Queens Of The Stone Age - Like Clockwork On one hand, I really like Josh Homme and all of his projects. On the other, I don't always go completely gaga for them as some others do. I really liked the Queens circa Songs For The Deaf, when they had three vocalists: Josh, bassist Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan. I thought that they sounded too "samey" once it was just Josh. And then I saw them at the Made In America festival. I thought they were great, and that the new songs were amazing, so I checked out the album, and really loved it. "I Sat By The Ocean" is one of my favorites. Josh got bonus points for calling Jay Z out after playing Made In America. I like some of Jay's stuff, but everyone else falls all over themselves trying to be his pal. Josh comes from a different era and a different school.

6. Arctic Monkeys - AM I really thought all the critics would go crazy over this album. They've been hyping the Arctic Monkeys forever. In my mind, they're one of the few bands that the media go crazy over who actually deserve the hype.  I loved their debut album, 2006's Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, and everything since. But I think this might be their best album. It combines their tight songwriting, which has always been a hallmark of the group, but also adds a lot of the "weirdness" that Josh Homme brought to the group when he produced their 2009 album Humbug. Josh actually sings backing vocals on a couple of songs here, giving him presence on two of my top ten albums of the year. Way to go, Josh!


7. Elvis Costello and the Roots - Wise Up Ghost More proof that both Elvis and the Roots can tackle any kind of music. A lot of this album reminds me of the Specials.  Sometimes these kinds of combinations can come off a bit contrived, but you know that with this one, it was all about mutual admiration and respect. I would love to see them tour together: imagine what Elvis songs they would revisit if they had time to rework some of his classics.  (In my world, Black Thought would be part of the tour and they'd do a bunch of Roots classics as well, Elvis could play along on guitar). Anyway, I'd file this with Elvis's great collab with Allen Toussaint, and the Roots' album with John Legend.

8. Black Sabbath - 13 Like everyone else, I approached this with managed expectations. I mean, could they still make a classic? Well, time will tell, but this album seriously kicked ass. And, OK, it doesn't  quite live up to the first six Sabbath albums, but it's at least as good as Never Say Die! and is better than Technical Ecstasy.  I obviously have a lot of feelings about the band: as I tell everyone I've ever met, I wrote the liner notes to the Black Box, and a while back was interviewed by A&E for a Sabbath doc. I was not disappointed by this album (other than the fact that they couldn't get it together with Bill Ward to have a full reunion; that said, Brad Wilk did a great job on the album, and Tommy Clufetos was great live). A lot of credit is due to producer Rick Rubin (him again!) but also to Ozzy, Tony and Geezer for bringing their A+ game. Especially Tony, who was going through chemo at the time.


9. Walking Papers - Walking Papers A new band featuring Duff McKagan on Guns N Roses and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and Mad Season. It sounds like nothing Duff has done, it's really more like Barrett's bands. In fact, singer Jeff Angell sounds a bit like Mark Lanegan. It's definitely a hard rock album, but more of a dusty Tom Waits type blues vibe (not a Clapton blues vibe). I was fortunate enough to interview Duff and Jeff for a Radio.com New Music To Know (read it here) and they were super cool. But what really turned me on to them was seeing them live on the second stage at the Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar Festival (see my review and my wife's photos here). They were really great, and I bought their album right there, and then reached out to get an interview. This isn't a "side project," it's a great band, please be clear. I hope they tour in 2014, I want to see them again!


10. Valerie June - Pushin' Against A Stone I also interviewed her for Radio.com's New Music To Know (read it here). I heard about her because some of the songs were produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (one of my favorite producers) and I think I'd read about her somewhere. I checked out her album and was blown away.  It would be great if she was a "zeitgeist" artist, but she's not going out of her way to enter the conversation for anything other than her amazing singing voice and her great songs. I think music lovers will be following her career for years to come.



So, there you have it. But ten isn't enough, here's a few other albums that I feel I have to add:

  • Daft Punk Random Access Memories It has my favorite song of the year (yes, "Get Lucky") and it sees them turning their backs on the EDM scene they may or may not have created, eschewing samples and using all live musicians, including Nile Rodgers. 
  • M.I.A. Matangi It has another of my favorite songs of the year ("Bring The Noize"). She's one of the most interesting artists today, consistently. 
  • Alice In Chains The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here In which they prove that the "new" lineup, with singer/guitarist William DuVall is for real. One of the most underrated albums of the year. 
  • Haim Days Are Gone Yeah, I'm with the critics on this one, too. I don't know how it's "indie" though, it sounds like '80s era Fleetwood Mac and Genesis, and I mean that as a compliment. Especially relative to what most indie rock sounds like these days. I saw them at Made In America and they were incredible. 
  • Aaron Neville My True Story In which he revisits his doo-wop past, on a stripped down record produced by Don Was and Keith Richards. 
  • Holly Williams The Highway The granddaughter of Hank, her artistry stands on its own. She's great. "Drinkin'" is devastating. 
  • Lindi Ortega Tin Star I discovered her opening for Social Distortion, she was great. I wish the press would pay attention to her, she surely deserves it. Another artist who I covered for Radio.com's New Music To Know. A super cool chick as well. 
  • Jason Isbell Southeastern The former Drive-By Trucker (who wrote my favorite DBT song, "Never Gonna Change") announced this album by saying it was the best thing he's ever done. Well, it is pretty freaking great. Check it out. 
  • Lone Bellow Lone Bellow A great new band, when they sing together it's magic. Do yourself a favor and check them out. 
  • Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park  Another time the critics are right. Her debut is excellent, she will get my vote for Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs. 
  • Hanni El-Khatib Head In The Dirt Another Dan Auerbach production, it's great garage rock from L.A. 
  • Sara Bareilles The Blessed Unrest I'm sorry to say that I only listened to this after it got a GRAMMY nomination, and well deserved. I interviewed a lot of music writers about her, all of whom were surprised, because she's not part of the zeitgeist, or the conversation. Which is all hte more reason to check this album out. 

Well, that's pretty much it. Bring it, 2014!


Saturday, February 9, 2013

THE GRAMMYS: MY TAKE

I love talking about the GRAMMYS; I've written about it often on my blog, talked about it on the radio, and covered the show for VH1 and, this year I'll be covering for Radio.com.  As longtime readers also know, I'm a voter. Except this year, I'm not - I forgot to pay my dues.  Duh! Normally I keep my votes a secret - I know NARAS frowns upon anyone sharing their votes. But since I'm not voting this year, I figured I'd share what my ballot would have looked like (and why). Enjoy, because I'm never forgetting to pay my dues EVER AGAIN.

Record Of The Year
Black Keys - "Lonely Boy"
Kelly Clarkson - "Stronger"
fun. - "We Are Young"
Goyte + Kimbra - "Somebody That I Used To Know"
Frank Ocean - "Thinkin' 'Bout You"
Taylor Swift - "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"

Really tough category. The Black Keys are my favorite artist in this category, and I love the way their whole El Camino album sounds. Is a stripped down garage rock sound the work of a great producer?  Well, to be minimal is a production choice, and in their case, it's the right one. I also love Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" - straight up, great pop song. fun. I don't buy into them as much, and I actually think their song "Some Nights" is a better song and a better sounding song than "We Are Young," so that gets eliminated. "Somebody That I Used To Know" is an incredible production. It's like a Peter Gabriel song, it's amazing.  Taylor's song is great, too, and the production made it her biggest hit yet.  Just when you thought she couldn't get any bigger, she got bigger, mostly because of the production on this song.
My Vote: Frank Ocean Like I said, minimalism is a choice, and in the case of this song, it really brought out the heart, and the hurt, in this song.  I don't buy into Frank Ocean the way everyone else does - I think his Channel Orange is a bit overrated - but "Thinkin' 'Bout You" is probably the best song of the year (and I can't believe it wasn't nominated in that category).



Album Of The Year 
Black Keys - El Camino
fun. - Some Nights
Mumford & Sons - Babel
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange 
Jack White - Blunderbuss 

First off, I produced a series of "Inside The Album Of The Year" video packages around these albums. See them all here, or follow the above links. Secondly,  Bruce Springsteen got ripped off. This isn't as egregious as 2007, when Bruce's Magic wasn't nominated, but lesser albums by Vince Gill and Herbie Hancock were.  All of these albums figured heavily into the conversation about pop music this year.  fun. was a huge band this year, but they feel more like a singles band than an album band. As I mentioned, I don't think Frank Ocean's album is a classic, but I'm in the minority there. And I didn't think Mumford & Sons' album held up to the first one.  But whatever.  For me, it breaks down to the Jack White/Black Keys rivalry. Blunderbuss  was my second favorite album of the year, after Bruce's Wrecking Ball. El Camino was my 4th favorite album of 2011 (it came out in December of that year).
My Vote: El Camino by a teeny, tiny margin. It just felt like it was The Black Keys' year.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

NEW: NORAH JONES REMIXES EP

Norah Jones is continuing to get her hipster on.  I'm not mad!  She has a new EP of remixes from last year's Little Broken Hearts album, which was my 7th favorite album of the year.

Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio remixed "Good Morning," "She's 22," "Take It Back" and "After The Fall."  I think he did a great job on them.

Jose Padilla, a dance music DJ who has been playing Ibiza since 1975 (!) according to his bio had really cool takes on "Say Goodbye" and "Travelin' On."

But Peter, Bjorn & John - probably most well known for the whistling song hit "Young Folks" - did a really upbeat take on Norah's darkest song, "Miriam."  It makes it kind of sinister - instead of being "holy s***" while listening to the lyrics, you're dancing and having fun while listening to Norah singing about taking revenge on the woman who stole her man (and did it in Norah's house!).

I don't think that this EP has gotten too much hype - and really, neither did the album. Which is too bad, the album was great, and this is a really cool remixes EP.


CATCHING UP: A(NOTHER) PRIMUS REVIEW

photo credit: Maria Ives 
2012 was a great year for me, for many reasons. You can look around at my recent "Catching Up" posts of the shows I attended (there are more to come).  And - bonus! - I got to see Primus twice! Once in the spring and then again in the fall. The fall show was a bit different because they started using 3D effects and quadrophonic sound, for a truly psychedelic experience.  Read my professional review of of the show on KROQ's website.

Just like with movies, 3D doesn't always work for me. Sometimes it adds to the experience, other times it just seems gimmicky.  Some of the effects in this show worked better than others.  But I have to give Primus credit for putting a lot of effort, and a lot of money, into creating an experience.  As for the musical performance, it was spectacular.  To me, they combine the best elements of the alternative/heavy rock scene of the '90s with the very best elements of improvisational rock (aka the jam band scene).  They stretch their songs out, but they don't get too long or too boring.  At this point, I think that the band's current lineup - Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Jay Lane - is the best lineup they've had.
"Ler" / photo credit: Maria Ives


The Pig Mask / photo credit: Maria Ives

photo credit: Maria Ives 
Anyway, I took photos the last time I saw them, but this time I had a pro shooting, so enjoy all of these photos Primus fans.  And if you steal them, give her credit at least and link back to my blog!

Drummer Jay Lane and Les Claypool are a great rhythm section. Photo credit: Maria Ives


on the dobro bass/ Photo credit: Maria Ives
photo credit: Maria Ives

Saturday, January 26, 2013

CATCHING UP: THE AFGHAN WHIGS CONCERT REVIEW

photo credit: Maria Ives 
I guess it was just a matter of time before Greg Dulli decided to reunite with the Afghan Whigs for a tour.  I don't know what went into the decision to reunite the band, but I'm glad they did it.  They were one of the best bands during the '90s.  The rock critic types seemed to really like them, MTV gave them a good shot, but they never seemed to catch on in a big way.  Radio wouldn't play them for some reason. And I'd read that Dulli could be his own worst enemy.

photo credit: Maria Ives 
I've enjoyed Dulli's work with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins.  But nothing touches the Afghan Whigs.  When I saw them back in the day, I thought Dulli was Springsteen-esque. So I'm glad to report that he's just as great today, and so were the rest of the band.  It was an amazing show, and I hope the tour wasn't just a one-off.  But even if it was, I'm glad I got the chance to see them one more time.
photo credit: Maria Ives


Friday, January 4, 2013

CATCHING UP: ROGER WATERS CONCERT REVIEW

Seeing Roger Waters at Yankee Stadium this summer was incredible. It was the exact same Wall show that I saw in 2010, it was just bigger.

I wasn't reviewing the show for work, we didn't have a photo pass (unfortunately) and we bought our tickets, which were expensive and totally worth it.

I found the show even more moving the second time around, especially during "Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)," where young children were break dancing on stage wearing shirts that read "FEAR BUILDS WALLS." I think the meaning of the album, to Roger, has changed since he wrote it during his days in Pink Floyd.

It was obviously a very personal album when he wrote it. But now, I think it takes on a more global message.  He paints in broad strokes - during "Mother" when he sings "Mother, should I trust the government?" the answer is scrawled on the wall: "No Fucking Way."  That's an easy way to get cheers (especially from the formerly mulleted classic rock crowd who may watch a bit too much Fox... but then again, I would probably have enjoyed that line a bit more during the bu$h era). Still, the performance seems to not emphasize his unsuccessful relationships with his exquisite wife and mother, and more on the effect that war has had on him (and many others, making it an album that seems less about himself and more about the rest of the world).

Still, I walked away from the show elated at the incredible production I'd just witnessed.  And also moved. Still moved after thirty years, by this incredibly powerful and durable work of art.

CATCHING UP: NORAH JONES CONCERT REVIEW

photo credit: Maria Ives
So, it was a bit weird to go to see Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper one night, and Norah Jones the next. But that's how we (my talented photographer wife and I) roll. I reviewed both shows for CBS New York.

Norah's Little Broken Hearts was one of my favorite albums of 2011, but I was curious how it would come off live, since it's a Danger Mouse production,  which often incorporates a lot of studio elements. No problem: it was great, and Norah showed a lot of confidence in her new music and her band, playing 10 of the 12 songs.

I give her a lot of credit for not being trapped by the success of her incredibly successful debut, Come Away With Me. She doesn't spend the night at the grand piano (in fact, she barely plays it at all, sticking with electric piano or guitar), and just plays a few songs from the album. Well, I think she always knew that she wasn't likely to match the sales of that record no matter what, and she hasn't let the album "own" her career. Anyway, obviously she's gone through some stuff lately, and that's what she's singing about.

The band did a great cover of The Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been The Roses," and I hope she releases that at some point.  The only disappointment of the show, for me, was that her Little Willies bandmate Jim Campilongo opened the show and they didn't play together.  I really dug the Little Willies' album from last year, For The Good Times, and would have loved to heard a song (or three) from it.  But I can't complain too much - Norah sang what she wanted to sing, and she was awesome.