standout albums of 2010 (in my humble opinion)

It’s 2011, and these are the albums of 2010 that I’m still listening to on a weekly basis.

I haven’t listened to every album that was released last year. Who has the time? I have, however, listened to quite a few of the 2010 releases over the year, both out of personal interest and for the local community radio station where I volunteer.

There were quite a few surprise favorites among the bunch. Surprise in that I didn’t expect I’d like them, much less become obsessed with them and continue to listen with great pleasure months later. So, with that, I bring you the top unexpected favorite album of 2010.

Dan Black – ((un))

Released in the UK last year, the album made its way to US shores in February this year. I saw the press releases due to my work with Blogcritics, but nothing about them made me think this would be an album I’d enjoy. However, when I saw it on the “to be reviewed” shelf at the radio station in April, I gave it a cursory listen and decided it might be worth giving more attention.

Eight months later, I’m still listening to it, and count it among my go-to albums for when I need energy and a happy mood. Black has successfully melded synthpop, creative lyrical songwriting, and addictive hooks. This is no flash in the pan album/artist — there’s potential for longevity and continued freshness in Black’s sound.

Marina & the Diamonds – The Family Jewels

Marina Diamandis released her debut album in March, but I didn’t notice it until a friend sent me a link to the video for “I Am Not a Robot.” This sparked my interest enough that when I had the opportunity to review it for the radio station, I gave it a few spins. It’s still spinning on regular rotation in my personal library now.

The album is chock full of pop hooks, delivered by a woman who’s vocal range and technique is impressive in this age of female pop stars who are more popular for their paparazzi photos than their musical talents. She frequently belts out higher notes that make my cats cringe when I attempt to sing along. Marina can hit them with ease. I cannot. This is probably why she’s a huge UK pop star and I’m some shmuck writing music reviews.

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

I can’t remember how I first ran across this album — whether it was one I picked to review for the radio station or one that a music director handed to me thinking I’d like it. Regardless, I found myself listening to Phantogram on repeat for a week or so in May, and few things will make me happy in the way I am when I hear the first few bars of “Mouthful of Diamonds.”

Sarah Barthel’s sweet and pure vocals are a nice balance to the rough (and often bizarre) vocal delivery from her partner, Josh Carter. The arrangements are a meld of synthpop, hip-hop, and singer/songwriter folk/pop. It’s similar to Dan Black, but a little more digitized and dirty.

Honorable Mentions:

Jennifer Knapp – Letting Go
I reviewed this for Blogcritics back in May, and you can read the full review if you like. In brief, this is her best album to date, and well deserving of a listen for anyone who enjoys thoughtful lyrics, strong female vocals, and music that straddles the line between acoustic and electric folk-pop.

The Like – Release Me
From what I understand, this is nothing like their earlier releases. The album has a 60’s girl-group sound with a modern attitude, similar to the Pipettes.

Indigo Girls – Staring Down the Brilliant Dream
Of course I have to include this in my list, but mostly because I’ve been a long-time fan of the group. This is a live album, and serves both as a gift to fans and as an excellent “best of” album to introduce the group to new listeners. I gave it a full review in August, if you’re interested in reading more.

Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup – “We No Speak Americano
I discovered this song when a friend linked to a video created by Irish step dancers Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding doing their hand dance to this track. I watched the video countless times before researching and discovering that the track is an international hit. Even without the hand dancing, it’s still one of my favorite dance tracks of 2010.

Article first published as Standout Albums of 2010 (In My Humble Opinion) on Blogcritics.

a tapestry of rich and royal hue

My review of Carole King’s Tapestry: Legacy Edition has been published on Blogcritics. I love this album, but I found myself without much to say about it, so I focused on what makes this edition different from previous ones.

The thing that makes this particular release of Tapestry unique and worthy of the collection of any Carole King fan is the second disc of previously unreleased live recordings. Producer Lou Adler says the live versions, with just her voice and piano, are like the demo versions he first heard of the songs.

Also, the review is a little late because I was operating under the assumption that it was going to be released on the 22nd, as was noted in previous press releases and on Amazon. However, as it turns out, the release date was moved up to the 15th. Oh, well!

carbonized vegetable matter

My review of Kathy Mattea’s new album Coal has been published on Blogcritics. I’ve been listening to it (and enjoying it) for a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write about it that I realized how depressing these songs can be, particularly all at once. When I listen to music, it’s usually as a secondary activity while focusing on something else, and my primary concern is with enjoying the tune. It’s only when I make the music my primary focus that the words begin to sink in.

My introduction to Kathy Mattea was courtesy of my parents and their Christmas music collection, which included her album Good News. The music was what you might expect of a gospel-y Christmas album, but what caught my attention and has held it ever since is the beauty and power of her voice. Rich, warm, and expressive, it’s like an addictive drug that you keep coming back to for one more hit to stave off the pains of withdrawal.

let’s get this party started, yo

My review of Freezepop’s Future Future Future Perfect has been published on Blogcritics. This was a purely voluntary review of a CD I bought with my own money, which doesn’t happen very often since I’m usually busy with the publicist-provided stuff.

My love affair with synth pop began some years ago when the general manager at WRFL handed me a few CDs and recommended that I play some tracks off of them on my show. The sweet, sweet sounds of synthesizers and ethereal pop vocals hooked me immediately, and from then on I kept an ear to the airwaves, hoping to find more of the “right stuff” that makes this music so addictive.

Over the past few months, I have discovered that the Boston-based trio Freezepop has the “right stuff.” Their new album, Future Future Future Perfect (Cordless/Rykodisc), has been on constant rotation in my “favorites” playlist, to the point that it has woken my muse to write a few pithy words about it.

penny loafers – quicksand

A cappella arrangements that are so good they make me want to listen to Coldplay, among others.

One of the things that continue to draw me to a cappella music is the intimacy it conveys. The voice is not hidden behind instrumentation or electronic trickery. It is left exposed in front for the world to hear.

The same is true with a cappella covers of songs that originally used modern instrumentation. Even when the choir of voices behind the lead singer is replicating the instruments and percussion of the original, the lead voice remains bare. Sometimes it takes that bare intimacy for me to realize just how good a song is.

I first had an inkling of this when I heard folk singer/songwriter Rose Polenzani do a cover of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" some years ago at a live show. I never liked the song as much as I did after I heard her version of it. The same thing happened when I heard the University of Pennsylvania Penny Loafers' a cappella cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" last year. Their cover made me give the song and the band a second listen, and now I'm hooked on The Postal Service.

Given all that, it was with eager anticipation that I hit the play button for the first track of the Penny Loafer's new album, Quicksand. Quicksand album coverOnce again, I was both surprised and pleased by how much I enjoy their versions of modern pop radio songs I never would listen to in their original incarnations.

"Swallowed in the Sea" (Coldplay) is a prime example of this. I cannot stand to listen to Coldplay. Maybe they are more interesting now, but their first hit single in the US was so dreary that I was immediately turned off and have not bothered to listen to them since then. However, Sam Cohn's a cappella arrangement and performance as lead vocal has made me think I should try them again. The song has a hint of folk to it, as if it had a history in an old English seaport.

Except for Sia's "Breathe Me" and Amiee Mann's "Humpty Dumpty," all of the songs on Quicksand are new to me. Those two are arranged close to the originals, as far as I can tell, and I can only expect the same is true of the rest of the album. The group has over a dozen arrangers represented on this album, and despite that they have kept the quality consistent. There is not a track on the album that stood out either positively or negatively.

A cappella purists might quibble over the obvious studio tweaking on the recording. There are a few places that stand out as examples of what the human voice cannot do without some digital augmentation. Even so, the quality of the recording is still impressive. The Penny Loafers have followed up Side A with another fine collection of a cappella tunes.

The Penny Loafers CDs (all eight of them) are available only on their website or a few online a cappella distributors. You can preview and download individual tracks or entire albums from acaTunes.

new Indigo Girls video!

The Indigo Girls finished their contract with Sony/Epic last year, and this year they signed with a new label, Hollywood Records. Fans were concerned and confused because all signs indicated the Girls would go with a major independent label rather than another major label. The explanation was that they felt like it was a good deal for both them and the label, so they went with it. Looks like it’s working out well because the label seems to really understand the Indigo Girls and their fan base, from the production work on their new album Despite Our Differences to the video for the first single, “Little Perennials.” Check it out:

loafin’

College a cappella is a genre of music that does not get the attention it deserves.

College a cappella is a genre of music that does not get the attention it deserves. It began with the Yale Whiffenpoofs in 1909, and it is set apart from barbershop and traditional choruses. The repertoire of most college a cappella groups consists of popular music, usually arranged by the members of the group or borrowed from other groups.

Unlike traditional a cappella songs that were written without instrumentation, the arrangements of popular songs interpret everything from guitar licks to keyboards using only the voice. There are several professional vocal bands (such as The Bobs), but most of the groups performing this style of music are centered in the college or university setting.

picture of the Penny LoafersOne such group is University of Pennsylvania’s Penny Loafers. The co-ed group was founded in 1986 and have released several recordings on their own as well as being featured on compilation albums. In 1999, they were featured on the Best of College A Cappella. After listening to their 2005 album Side A, it is apparent that they have continued to produce solid arrangements of pop and rock songs.

The Penny Loafers’ Side A is impressive in that the arrangement and execution of most of the songs are spot on a cappella replicas of the originals. However, there are a few production issues that throw it off. Occasionally the levels for the vocals doing the instrumental bits are not balanced so that they blend into a uniform sound, and there is a tendency for them to overwhelm the lead vocal.cover of Side A

An example of this is the beginning of “Don’t Leave Home.” Unlike the original performed by Dido, the sparseness of the intro is lost in the Penny Loafers’ arrangement due to the instrumental vocals being at the same level as the solo. They jump out at the listener in a way that they shouldn’t.

In contrast, “Take Me Out” blends everything just about right. Occasionally individual voices can be picked out, but otherwise it is a melodious blend of sounds that pay homage to Franz Ferdinand.

The best track on the CD is “Such Great Heights.” Given how well the group pulled off the Franz Ferdinand tune, it was no surprise that they would give the Postal Service’s song the same treatment. The original tune combines driving electronica with emo vocals that result in something almost zen-like. None of this power is lost in the Penny Loafers’ a cappella version. If anything, the impact of this song is enhanced in the new format.

You can view the full track listing as well as pick up a copy for yourself on the Penny Loafers website. The group is currently wrapping up work on a new album called Quicksand that will include songs originally performed by Kelly Clarkson, Snow Patrol, and Beck, just to name a few. For a taste of that, check out the video of the group performing Sia’s “Breath Me” live in concert.

call them what you like

Call them what you like, if you like rock ‘n roll.

Puffy AmiYumi is a pop/rock duo from Japan. I first heard them on the Japan For Sale Vol. 2 album back when I was a volunteer at a college radio station. I liked what I heard, so I made sure to give their next release (Nice.) a few spins when it arrived at the station. That one made me a fan, and eventually I bought my own copy.

The band is called Puffy in Japan, but when they started making inroads into the American music scene, they added on a combination of their own names so as not to be confused with the other Puffy. Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura were brought together in 1995 by talent agencies and currently they have an animated series on the Cartoon Network (Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi). The commercialized nature of the band should make me not like them, much in the way that I do not care for American Idol or the Backstreet Boys, but somehow this particular incarnation of the music industry’s pre-fabricated band formula does not make me want to retch every time I hear it. Maybe the Japanese know how to do it better.

Listening to Puffy AmiYumi always puts me in a good mood. They never fail to deliver just the right mixture of the pop/rock formula that makes this child of the late 70s and 80s happy. Their latest album Splurge! continues with the Jpop/rock goodness.

Continue reading “call them what you like”

music icon

I met Cris Williamson this past weekend, thanks to my friends Kiya & Miriam. Although I was aware of Cris and her importance in women’s music, I had not listened to her much. Her best-selling album The Changer and the Changed was released the year I was born. I didn’t even know that women’s music existed until 1996-ish, and by then it was virtually gone. There are still some remnants of it, but women (mostly lesbian) musicians and fans don’t need it now like they did in the 1970s. Meeting Cris in that context was…interesting. I have tremendous respect for her.

One question that resulted from that meeting is: Who is the icon for 20-something women? The only women musicians I can think of for my generation are in their 30s (Ani DiFranco, for example). I can’t think of a 20-something woman musician who has influenced her peers in the way that Cris did for her peers in the late 70s.