Recently, two friends of mine were discussing how much they hate end of year lists. As is obvious from this blog most years, when I actually get around to making my own year end lists, I have to respectfully disagree.
My favorite thing about end of year lists is that I inevitably miss a bunch of stuff through the year, now more than ever. When other folks share their favorite stuff from the year, it makes it easy for me to discover great things from the year that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks. I can adjust my must-watch and listen and download lists accordingly. I love it.
Case in point. Last April, Chance the Rapper gave me a really great belated birthday gift. I’d already experienced and loved the album, but the music video for “Sunday Candy” I’d missed entirely.
This single take music video of a fake high school musical is a delightful companion to the unabashedly joyful song Chance wrote for his grandmother.
Maybe you can make it through watching this video without smiling, but I definitely can’t. After we watched it I made Emily watch it again immediately. I’ve watched it another time since then. I’m going to go watch it again now.
The Roots just came to Seattle, playing two nights at The Showbox at the Market. Fortunately for me, Emily got me tickets for Christmas. It was an amazing three hour show. The encore alone included a 30something minute long medley that featured Roots songs and covers (from Guns & Roses to Led Zeppelin), and during which the band expended more energy than any other band I’ve seen does in their entire set. Here are three impressions I came away with after the show. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I imagine no one really wants to read 3000 words of my thoughts about the show.
1. ?uestlove is a genius.
I love The Roots. I think that even with, or perhaps because of, all their popularity as Fallon’s band, they are a wildly under-appreciated and underrated band. During their concerts, they take the whole thing to a new level.
The engine/heart/curator/director/producer/brain behind it all is ?uestlove. He is a remarkable bandleader, which is why they are such a skilled and contagiously fun live act. Yet, his direction is always subtle. He is constantly creating contexts for other people to shine. He never leads the band by shouting or making big gestures to make sure everyone knows who is in charge, but simply has a second microphone at his kit that only feeds to the rest of the band and to the folks controlling the levels. Through this he refines each moment of the performance, keeping the band on point, and directing the sound board based on the main feed he gets through his headphones.
It’s hard to find anything more fun than a Roots show, and ?uestlove is the primary reason for that.
Snoop says Kendrick is the leader of West Coast rap today. That seems pretty obvious, who is the other contender? Macklemore? Let me tell you right now, as a white man, if another white man is ever widely considered the ‘leader’ of any school of rap or Hip Hop, just shoot me in the face.
Seriously though, Kendrick Lamar isn’t just the leader of West Coast rap, he may be the greatest act that West Coast rap has ever produced. Especially because J5 sounds way more influenced by East Coast Hip Hop than any West Coast sound. Kendrick takes that gangsta sound and brings it to another level. I saw him open for Kanye here in Seattle and he killed it. Absolutely killed it. A short man in a hoodie in Key Arena with no fanfare outside of a live band and he controlled the entire arena.
I already respected him as much as any other working emcee. Then he shut down the musical side of the Colbert Report this week… dude had another gear we didn’t know about and it was on display.
Listen up, losers. The future is now. This isn’t the guy we need running West Coast rap, this is the guy we need running all of Hip Hop.
This year has seen a remarkable saturation of amazing hip hop albums. Some are genre busting, experimental powerhouses like Yeezus (more on that another day), but there are also a large number of straightforward hip hop albums that push the genre forward, but in a way that’s more accessible than Mr. West’s most recent outing. Case in point: My Name is My Name by Pusha T.
I’d been looking forward to this album for a while. The 36 year old rapper, who makes up half of Clipse, has been active for some time (over two decades), but since I’m not the hip hop head I wish I was, he didn’t come to my attention until he started showing up on Kanye tracks a few years ago.
While I was anticipating Pusha’s first solo studio LP, this album is far, far better than I could have hoped. It’s amazing from end to end. The production is fantastic, and delivery-wise he has the street cred, awareness, and subject matter of a young Jay-Z, but with hunger, energy, and intensity that Jay-Z never had even at the peak of his lyrical abilities, which is saying something since Pusha is nearing his 40’s, not exactly prime time for most emcees.
Pusha T’s flow is dynamic, sharp, aggressive, and engaging. In a lot of ways I feel like he is an East Coast companion to Kendrick Lamar, who fittingly shows up on this album with a great verse of his own.
As much as I love this year’s outings by Run the Jewels, Chance the Rapper, Ye, Gambino and others, I think if I was only allowed to keep one hip hop album from 2013, this would be it.
The one downside I have to mention is that Chris Brown appears on the album, who I think is the worst person in music.
I totally understand how unlikely it is that folks buy music anymore, but I’ll be including Amazon links to the albums I mention. If you feel so inclined, support the band AND Roused to Mediocrity in one amazing swoop! If you’re interested, click the album cover below to buy this album for 3.99.
It’s hard to believe album release dates anymore. They are often available for download long before they are supposed to be. However, two albums were “officially” released in wide format last Tuesday, and somehow, with these two albums, the heavens opened up and allowed two masterpieces to be unveiled on the world. Start to finish, these two albums are the real deal. You should use whatever means it is to download music to download these post haste!
Friday, to allow for travel to the Gorge, the festivities didn’t kick off until 4:00. On Saturday, with most already camped out, things began at noon. Were I home, that would be early for me, since normally I fall asleep between 4 and 7 in the morning, and then intermittently piece five or six ours of sleep together through the better part of the daytime hours. However, at Sasquatch, this was impossible. I may not have fallen asleep much earlier, but with the hot sun beating down on our tent by early morning, it was an oven by 9:00, making sleep a purely theoretical venture.
Up early in the day, we wasted most of our mornings laying lazily around the campsite or charging our phones near the kitchen. Then, we would drive into town and get some much desired AC and free McDonalds wifi. Even though we were awake, we never actually got our act together early enough to make it in by noon, but normally caught the second or third act of the day as our first show.
Saturday, we finally got organized and motivated to catch the shuttles over to the Gorge a bit after 12. This reminds me, I keep mentioning the shuttles, but haven’t mentioned that said shuttles were awesome decommissioned King County Metro buses. Complete with old ads and PSAs. There were two oldish buses, like this one:
And then two more really old buses, that had most certainly been active through our country’s shameful segregated bus history.
This added an additional bit of character to our daily bus trips.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
We made it in on Saturday in time to catch the beginning of Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires. For those who don’t know Charles Bradley, I didn’t either. Apparently, he is the 64 year old “Screaming Eagle of Soul.” A less spectacular cross between Otis Redding and James Brown. And don’t take my statement he is less spectacular than Otis Redding and James Brown to be an insult, we’re all less spectacular than Otis, that’s just a fact of life.
At 64, Bradley still brings it on stage. Whether crooning about the woman he loves, or taking us to church with a song about America and Jesus [complete with an interlude during which he carries his microphone stand on his shoulder like the cross], Bradley is still every bit the showman.
He even mentioned my hometown during a song. It got exciting when he rolled into the lyric /I went to upstate New York/ I thought, “Hey, upstate New York.” Then he finished the line with, /to a little town they call Poughkeepsie/ After which Emily and I cheered and then needed to explain to our neighbors in the grass why we did so.
Blitzen Trapper was just about exactly what I expected them to be. On stage, just as in their recordings, they’re a good, talented, classic rock throwback band that takes bits from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and throws it together to make really strong rock music.
I enjoyed their set, and I would write more, but it was already a week ago, and they were immediately overshadowed by what came next.
The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars. Dear Lord, The Civil Wars. Watching them perform, I didn’t sing along, I didn’t dance, I didn’t clap and yell. I was truly and entirely riveted, struck dumb by the remarkable talent I was witnessing.
The hardest thing about a small band [in size] playing the main stage is that the space is so much larger than most. Often, a band isn’t ready. It’s not just about filling the space with band members or noise, although that certainly helps. It’s about filling the space with presence, with energy, which is a lot easier for a band the louder they are. It should have been a remarkably tall order for The Civil Wars. It’s just him and her, and with the exception of one song, the only instrument used is John Paul’s acoustic guitar. At a festival, in the middle of the afternoon, it’s nearly impossible to draw people in and keep them excited without a big production of some sort.
The Civil Wars accomplished the nearly impossible. Just the two of them, with the power of their raw talent and charisma, blew the doors off the main stage armed with nothing but their bittersweet songs of love, life, hope, faith, pain, and disillusionment.
They were spell-binding. The way they play their characters is perfect. She is the innocent, sexy, seductive young woman. He is the rascal, with his tuxedo, his long hair, and the glass of whiskey he brings on stage with him. They are playful and winning, stealing each other’s microphones, joking back and forth. Watching the chemistry between them, it would be easy to assume that the two were together, that she was pregnant with his baby, and not that each is actually married to another.
Each song was stunning. When they performed their hymn “From this Valley,” a song I’d never heard before, I nearly broke down weeping. For me, it was the perfect song in the perfect moment.
We just missed the band the last two times they played Seattle (Ballard no less!), but now that we’ve finally seen them, it was remarkable, and I sure hope they are back in our neck of the woods soon!
This was easily the most uncomfortable concert I’ve ever witnessed. We were up front for Civil Wars, we wanted to stay up front to see Childish Gambino, and so we had no choice but to stick around for Jamey Johnson. As far as scheduling is concerned, this was the only truly massive failure we witnessed on the part of Sasquatch. I don’t know who is into Jamey Johnson, but it most certainly isn’t the people showing up for Civil Wars and Childish Gambino.
Everyone around us for the Jamey Johnson show was there for Childish Gambino, just biding their time. This means they were all in the mood for some energetic emcee action. What’s the furthest thing from energetic emcee action? How about pop-country music… yup, that’ll do it.
Maybe Jamey Johnson has tons of fans all over the country, but they weren’t at Sasquatch, and they certainly aren’t the kids waiting for Childish Gambino. We were surrounded by people having loud conversations that Johnson could most definitely hear from the stage. It was depressing, awkward, and remarkably uncomfortable. I spent the entire time just wanting the whole thing to be over.
Then, in came Mr. Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, to save the day. It was our second time seeing him, and once again he delivered exactly what we’d expect: fun, cocky, underrated emcee work to the delight of a good sized group of passionate fans who, in turn, rapped along to all his words while also shouting out Community references about Troy Barnes, Abed, and Annnie’s Boobs.
The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Alison Brie had actually made an appearance.
After that, we spent the afternoon at the Honda Bigfoot Stage, relaxing in the sunshine, while eating our Beecher’s Mac’n’Cheese on our M’s blanket to the musical stylings of The Helio-Sequence, and then tUne-yArDs. We needed a rest, and fortunately at Sasquatch rests include listening to wonderful bands playing great music, soaking up sunshine (while properly sun-screened of course).
By the end of the tUne-yArDs show, there was a glorious desert sunset to accompany our wait for St. Vincent.
The first casualties
This evening also marked our first two major casualties. I would have loved to see The Shins and Jack White, but it wasn’t meant to be. I could have made it if I was willing to sit at the back and watch a bit of The Shins before hopping over to see St. Vincent, then walked back over and stood at the back for Jack White before rushing back to see The Roots. That’s how most people at Sasquatch seemed to do things. However, that’s just not how I watch a concert, or do anything for that matter. When I do something, I do it deeply and entirely. I immerse myself in it. The whole reason I have wanted for so long to spend all this money and travel out to central Washington for Sasquatch was because I love concerts so much. I love the experience of them, the energy and passion. I have trouble getting into concerts from the back row, as a passive observer. I just don’t think that is how a contemporary rock show is designed to be experienced.
Thus, I made the sacrifice of seeing parts of a bunch of shows in order to be up front for the performances by my very favorite bands. I skipped The Shins so I could be upfront for St. Vincent. I skipped Jack White so I could be three people from the stage for The Roots. Worth it.
I love St. Vincent. Apparently, so do The Civil Wars. Joy Williams has tweeted several times about that fact, and we watched St. Vincent’s show just a few feet away from John Paul White.
Her concert was in no way what I expected. She trades off many of the layers of her music in favor of a high energy show that gets more punk as it goes. By the end she is performing old 80’s punk covers and spastically crowd surfing, gyrating to the point that I was certain she was going to be dropped and get hurt.
I’m not going to lie, I missed much of what I love about her studio recordings, but it was still a really entertaining live set.
After St. Vincent, I spent an hour and half waiting for The Roots. Jack White was the headliner that night, and The Legendary Roots Crew was actually playing one of the weekend’s two late night sets, from 11:30-1:00. This is the reason why the waiting was so long. And wait I did. I’ve wanted to see them live for such a long time, they were the band I was most excited about, and nothing was going to get between me and a great position to stand. There was a little bonus during the waiting, when Captain Kirk came out to check the levels on his own guitar. Oddly, none of the other people waiting for The Roots seemed to have any idea who he was, so I just got to watch him do his thing on my own. Eventually, everyone figured out who he was, which ended sitting time and started the 30 minutes where we all stood waiting for the band.
It was totally, completely, 100% worth it. The Roots aren’t just showmen, they’re concert gods. The Roots are a throwback band live. ?uestlove’s father is Lee Andrews, the bandleader for a doo-wop group called Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and ?uest was in music clubs all his life. He ended up playing drums in his dad’s band as early as seven, and was the permanent drummer by the time he was a teenager. (Watch his episode of Hulu’s A Day in the Life).
Anyway, ?uestlove’s upbringing, combined with his remarkable talent and the fact that he has been performing with at least some form of The Roots for 20 years, makes for as much fun as a concert can be. It was just 90 minutes of unadulterated joy.
How many hip hop groups do you know who feature a 6 minute sousaphone solo in the middle? Oh, that’s right, your hip hop group doesn’t have a tuba player.
The band just has so much fun on stage that it is contagious. Dancing, chasing each other around the drums, improvised conversation between the keyboards and the tuba where each performer keeps trying to throw the other off, and a remarkably fun replacement to the traditional encore that had me laughing, dancing, and screaming. Oh, and Captain Kirk is the most underrated guitar player I’ve ever seen. He’s amazing.
Nothing I can write will articulate how fun this concert was. Also, all the videos I can find just don’t do it justice. All I can say is that from the first full song, “Paul Revere” to honor the late MCA, to the final note of the night, I was exhausted from sheer delight by the time it was over. It was a bucket list entry to see The Roots in concert for the first time, and now it is a major life goal to see them in concert again.
Below is video I shot from the show. Sadly, it’s missing so many of the delights the band had to offer that night, but it was the only time I could keep from celebrating long enough to record an entire song.
The lists are here, folks. There are so many great albums this year that we need to split each one up into sections. Wee-ow, was there some good music in 2011.
This is our second year doing music lists, and the second with our very own RtM Hall of Fame. Since there was literally no thought put into the formation of our little musical cooperstown, there are a few weaknesses I’ve noticed. Such as, what about adding old bands, those of whom don’t release albums anymore? We aren’t fixing said problems this year, just thought I’d point them out.
Anyway, last year saw the induction of: The New Pornographers, The National, Spoon, Josh Ritter, and Menomena. We changed the criteria for picking HoF acts, so Menomena wouldn’t have made it in, but the Hall is sacred. Once you’re in, you’re in.
This year, there will be at least fourteen new additions into the Hall. That’s quite a few, but I assure you they are all deserving. Here are the first five!!
1. Kanye West
Scott: How is one man responsible for the best Hip Hop album of the year, two years in a row?!? That’s uncanny. And not like, the resemblance between that old man and my Aunt Petunia is uncanny… like, X-Men uncanny. Yup, Kanye West is a mutant, and his power is making remarkable albums. Jay-Z returns to form for the first time in forever, and Kanye continues building on the victory of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This album doesn’t have the epic, genre changing, staggering beauty of that album. What it does have is enough swagger and commentary on the black experience in America to be, hands down, the best Hip Hop album of the year. **Although, since writing this, I’ve heard The Roots new album, which immediately made this race a tie. Sorry to be indecisive like that, but that’s how I roll.**
Brian: Did you say “wee-ow”? Well, Imma ’bout to say it, too. Wee-ow!! “Watch the Throne” is good. GOOD. It does at least two things: reminds us that Jay-Z’s talent hasn’t completely left the building (a lot of us had written him off completely), and it places Kanye as the best producer/MC on the planet. Unless I am forgetting someone, who else combines this kind of producing talent with this kind of MC talent? Sure, there are better MCs out there, but, can any of them claim to also be the best producer in the genre? … sit down, Lil’ Wayne … just because Nicki Minaj said you’re the best rapper alive (http://youtu.be/M3Rno4fxCjw — you can skip ahead to 1:35 to hear the quote, but if you watch the whole thing: 1) sorry for the stupid bullshit skit at the beginning, and 2) connoissours will notice Tyler, the Creator as the award giver) doesn’t make it true. Put it this way: ‘Ye’s samples include everything from the late, great Otis Redding (on “Otis”, obviously) to some of the most recent and popular (in Europe) dubstep beats (as heard on “Who Gon Stop Me”). I love the variety. Also loved? The way ‘Ye and Jay hand the mic back and forth on most of these tracks. They play off of each other nicely. And you can tell they had fun making this album together. All I’m waiting for now is for someone to make a “Watch the Throne”/”Game of Thrones” mash-up video.
S: Any argument you make for Radiohead being in a Hall of Fame will wind up being redundant. There’s simply nobody else like them. As I’ve said before, this album isn’t as brilliant as In Rainbows before it, but it’s still Radiohead, and their lesser work is better than 97% of everything else. Let’s hope there are still decades to come of the band who continues to reinvent their sound and yet still winds up being amazing all over again.
B: Radiohead. What more can be said? At the mere mention of the name, people achieve orgasm. While I agree with Scott that “In Rainbows” outshines “King of Limbs”, it is a HoF album, because they are a HoF band. They are in the territory where they could release an album of animal sounds with some synths and drums thrown in, and people would call it brilliant. And it wouldn’t be in that way that some naive chucker would hear or see art he doesn’t understand and say it’s brilliant. The album WOULD BE brilliant. Rarefied air.
3. Tom Waits
S: It’s hard to even begin writing about Tom Waits. He’s just too damned close to my heart to know how to articulate it to all of you. He’s a genius: a master storyteller, a trickster, a prophet, a joker, a preacher, and a liar. There’s no way to ever know where his act ends and he begins. His songs are filled with, and usually narrated by, a cast of characters that get under the skin and live there. Bad as Me is more of the same. It’s certainly not accessible, pop, radio music. That’s ok, because it’s brilliant, instead.
He’s one of my favorite storytellers. I’m not qualifying that within songwriting storytellers, just storytellers, period.
B: Thomas Alan Waits. I love Scott’s words about him so much. He is master story and character crafter. He’s HoF because of this, and many other facets of his music. As with most things, people want to copy and emulate the best. Despite what ScarJo has done to ruin Tom Waits for some, Mr. Waits continues to be praised and covered by his peers; to be honored for his genius. If I can compare him to Ron Burgundy: He is a God among mere mortals.
4. David Bazan
S: The voice of a generation of discontented evangelical young folks, Bazan was once the paragon of struggling faith. Now, having lost that faith, he continues to write deeply poignant songs. Strange Negotiations lacks the power of his last album, Curse Your Branches, which is the memoir of a man losing his ability to believe in God. That being said, Bazan is still doing what he does best: writing stories, some true, some not, that capture one’s heart and imagination alike. It almost feels at times like Strange Negotiations is an appendix to Curse Your Branches, instead of a stand-alone album. Yet, don’t get me wrong, I love Strange Negotiations more with every listen.
As for his HoF credentials, Bazan’s voice articulates the pain and vulnerability of his lyrics in a way that I find both haunting and oddly inspiring. Wearing his proverbial heart on his sleeve; his anger, frustration, humiliation, and angst are exposed for the world to see, yet his songwriting is so literate and intelligent that it keeps his work from ever moving into the realm of whiny, emo bullshit.
He is a no doubt Hall of Famer in my book.
B: What strikes me most about Bazan is his honesty. In the Pedro the Lion days, when he was more apt to write concept type records full of worldly characters, it was his honesty about people and the world that was so in your face and raw. He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about the human condition, and this rock we inhabit, even when the truth was filled with murder, and affairs. Then, on “Curse Your Branches”, Bazan brought an honesty about himself and his struggles that was so disarming, you felt as though you were sitting at a bar with him throwing back shots of whiskey, while he poured himself out on the counter. It was powerful, and real, and raw … and as Scott said, not emo at all! His music is improving in every way, as well. His voice has improved from the Pedro days, and the man just knows how to craft a song.
5. Okkervil River
S: While formed in 1998, Okkervil River is perhaps earlier in their career than most acts being inducted into the hall. I still stand by their worth with all my heart. In large part, the band’s 2005 release Black Sheep Boy is, in my opinion, one of the finest albums released in the last decade. Thus, everything else the band does is just adding on to that achievement.
This year’s I Am Very Far is immensely listenable. One music writer, Jim Scott, says “I Am Very Far makes a strong case for Sheff to be considered one of the very best writers in music today.” I’d have to agree. That songwriting, combined with dynamic musicianship and strong production, not to mention Will Sheff’s unique vocals, make for yet another Okkervil River release that finds itself in my five favorite albums of the year.
“I Am Very Far” is a tight, paradoxical album. It feels focused and taut, yet chaotic and experimental. Sheff and Co. have put together a collection of songs that, in many ways, is a departure from previous albums. For one, this was Will Sheff’s first time producing an Okkervil River album. Sheff’s willingness to follow his creative energy as producer and lead singer and songwriter of the band led to new methods in the studio:
the band experimented with various recording methods in each session, including fastforwarding and rewinding a cassette tape and then doubling the noises on electric guitar, tearing off strips of duct tape for percussion, singing while strolling around the room, and hurling file-cabinets across the studio. Some songs had input from a vast number of session musicians playing in the same room (‘Rider’, ‘We Need a Myth’), the latter of which opens with the strumming of 45 classical guitars.
Yet, for all these apparent differences, this is still very much an Okkervil River album. Sheff’s vocals constantly remind us of that. Furthermore, as Scott mentioned, the album is really easy to listen to, and terribly catchy, cementing Okkervil River as a RtM HoF band.