Sunday, June 26, 2016

Favorite Albums of 2016 (so far)

I'll be the first to admit that I have been failing at music this year. There have been a ton of big releases by artists I love that I just flat out haven't listened to (M83, PJ Harvey, Animal Collective, James Blake, just to name a few.) And why? Hmm, well, I just don't know. No interest? Too busy? I have no idea. I spent most of the first part of this year listening to the entire discography of Editors. And then I moved onto Biffy Clyro. And I've been listening to a ton of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence + the Machine. But none of these things are from 2016. BUT I did find five records I've loved/liked so far this year....

1. Jack Garratt-Phase
I know what you're thinking. "But Alyssa, both Andrew Bird and Frightened Rabbit released records this year. Who the hell is this?" And yes, I was prepared to crown Painting of a Panic Attack my #1 (so far) until about a month ago when I was channel surfing and came upon the music video (I know!) for "Worry." I stopped what I was doing because the song was that good. I obsessively listened to it for a few days, and tried to get into the rest of the record but it wasn't happening. I started likening the way I felt about Phase as the way I felt about Sam Smith's record (what was I thinking!?): great, great single but the rest of the album was just filler.

Oh, but I was wrong. After a few more attempts, the rest of the album clicked. And holy shit. I've been listening to it obsessively since, and "Worry" and "Weathered" are the two most-played tracks on my iPod. This is probably my favorite record since Celebration Rock in 2012. It is a real triumph, and every song is fantastic. Honestly, there is no filler on this album. And Jack Garratt, lord almighty, talk about brilliant and talented. He only has one album out but I already rank him with Andrew Bird, Scott Hutchison, Sufjan Stevens, Merrill Garbus, and Zach Condon as being one of the most talented people in music. And live, he's even better, if you can believe it. That. voice. I can't believe how polished he already is live, and how well he can elevate his music (and you know, play a bajillion instruments at once.) The scary thing is is that he's only twenty-four, which means he'll only get better.

Look, I can go on and on about how fantastic he is but the bottom line is, Jack Garratt has a lot of hype surrounding him, and it's totally justified. I expect him to blow up even bigger than he already has. But in the meantime, it's going to be very hard to top Phase this year, and it's going to be hard to top both "Worry" and "Weathered" as my favorite songs this year (seriously, "Worry" is the best song I've heard in a long, long, LONG time), and it's going to be very hard to top his live show for me this year.

If he does blow up and everyone starts listening to him, and he's playing huge venues, and I don't love his music like I used to, at least I'll have had Phase.

Favorite Tracks: Worry, Weathered, Falling.

2. Frightened Rabbit-Painting of a Panic Attack
Is this my favorite Frightened Rabbit record? No. But is it still a great, great (Frightened Rabbit) record? Yes. Scott Hutchison is just a genius, plain and simple. His skills as a songwriter are unsurpassed, and he's one of, if not the, best lyricist in music right now. This is a strong record, just as you'd expect from Frabbits but at the same time, it's a progression from their previous records. They were able to expand their sound but still sound like the Frightened Rabbit we all know and love. I will admit though, there is a bit of filler in the middle of the record (I just never want to listen to "400 Bones" or "Blood Under the Bridge") but when it's good, it's good. I mean, I think the end of "Lump Street" is one of the best things in their catalog, and just listening to "Die Like a Rich Boy" makes me think, "yep, this is exactly why I love Scott Hutchison." And don't even get me started on the one-two punch of "I Wish I Was Sober" and "Woke Up Hurting" (a Frabbits song you can dance to? What!?) This is just further proof that Frightened Rabbit is one of the best bands around.

Favorite Tracks: Lump Street, Die Like a Rich Boy, I Wish I Was Sober.

3. Tegan and Sara-Love You To Death
A solid record by a trusty and true band. At this point, Tegan and Sara just couldn't disappoint me. I love their foray into pure pop, and quite frankly, I find it to be a natural progression, not a major leap. This is just a catchy, well-written, cohesive record, and if you thought they couldn't possible get any better by record #8, you were wrong. Tegan and Sara are making mature and thoughtful pop music, and I don't miss the guitars at all.

Favorite Tracks: Boyfriend, U-Turn, Stop Desire.

4. Andrew Bird-Are You Serious?
Another solid record by a trusty and true favorite. But...let's be honest here, for as enjoyable as this record is, it's nowhere near as good as we know Andrew can be. It's tame, and not very ambitious. It's his most straight forward record, his most accessible, which isn't a bad thing (the other records on this list are very accessible) but when you know what Andrew can do, it's disappointing. Regardless, it's still very enjoyable, and it's nice that he's moving towards writing pop music again and moving away from the country/bluegrass direction he seemed very fond of. Luckily, this record also came off much better live.

Favorite Tracks: Left Handed Kissed, Roma Fade, The New Saint Jude.

5. Sia-This Is Acting
Look, sometimes I just really like some good old-fashioned pop music where people just belt their faces off. Sia is perfect for that.

Favorite Tracks: Unstoppable, Alive, Cheap Thrills.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Favorite Albums of 2015

1. Viet Cong-Viet Cong
Naming my favorite album of 2015 is tough because nothing truly touched me, or shaped my year as much as Dry the River's Shallow Bed did. But that record is three years old, and I'd rather not talk about it. So I turned to the two records I just thought were the strongest releases of the year, Viet Cong and Are You Alone? Which ranks higher? One is all head, the other is all heart. But still two incredible, albeit different, records. So they're tied.

Viet Cong is probably the best new band since Fleet Foxes. And their debut is one of the best debuts in a long, long time. It's like an assault, and doesn't give you a chance to breathe at at point throughout. It's so incredible cohesive, and there isn't a weak track among the eight on the album. And wow, what tracks those are. "Continental Shelf" is one of the bet songs to come out in years, and "Death" is incredible and ambitious and lets you lose yourself for eleven minutes. I cannot wait to hear what Viet Cong has in store for the future. No matter what they call themselves.

Favorite Tracks: Continental Shelf, Death, Silhouettes

Majical Cloudz-Are You Alone?
I wrote about this record in detail so I won't go too into it but this album is special. It does the perfect job of expressing that anxiety over wanting to be with people even though people have let you down in the past. Devon Walsh's songs feel real and relatable.

Favorite Tracks: Downtown, Are You Alone?, Disappeared 

3. Sufjan Stevens-Carrie & Lowell
I have been a Sufjan Stevens' fan for a long time. A long, long, long time. And his music had a significant role in my high school and college years. While I worship Illinois, I almost want to say that Carrie and Lowell is his best record. Because this is Sufjan at his (understandably) most vulnerable. It's (obviously) his most personal collection of songs. It may not have all the bells and whistles of his previous works but this one cuts so deep, and it's a thing of beauty.

Favorite Tracks: Eugene, Fourth of July, Carrie & Lowell

4. Frank Turner-Positive Songs for Negative People
Sometimes one of your favorites is trusty and reliable and puts out a great album of pop songs.

Favorite Tracks: Josephine, The Next Storm, Glorious You

5. Beach House-Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars
Yes, I'm grouping these together. Perhaps that is unfair, perhaps that is just buying into the whole "everything they put out sounds the same" bullshit that everyone brings up whenever Beach House enters the conversation but for me, I group them together because well, it's all Beach House. And I love Beach House. They are probably the most consistent band around right now (hey, Frightened Rabbit too but it's possible I'm a wee bit biased there) and I'm not sure why Victoria Legrand isn't considered one of the best female songwriters around. Depression Cherry hit me right away, it was heavy and dark and beautiful but Thank Your Lucky Stars took a bit of time for me to fall in love. It seems way more playful, flirtatious even, and Victoria Legrand even sounds pretty sexy.

Favorite Tracks: Bluebird, Sparks, The Traveler

6. Joanna Newsom-Divers
A Joanna Newsom record with drums and guitars? With songs shorter than six minutes? What world are we living in? But it didn't disappoint at all. In fact, about fifty seconds into "Anecdotes," I was ready to burst into tears just from hearing her harp again in a brand new song. Because it was all just so beautiful. Joanna makes us wait and wait and then really delivers. I just love it. If I have any complaints about this record, it's that I wish there was more harp and less piano, and her lyrics aren't as clear on this record than before so it makes it harder to follow them. And c'mon, that's why you listen to Joanna Newsom, right?

Favorite Tracks: Leaving the City, Divers, Sapokanikan, Time, As a Symptom

7. Lower Dens-Escape From Evil
I don't mean to be reductive, and I think Jana Hunter is great but it's like Beach House with more guitars! Regardless, it is an incredibly strong pop record. Not a weak song among the bunch. I didn't care for Lower Dens' debut, but now I definitely need to revisit it.

Favorite Tracks: Company, I Am The Earth, Quo Vadis

8. Editors-In Dream
I've liked Editors for a few years now, mostly because of Tom Smith's incredible voice. When I found out they released a new record (and hey, toured with The Twilight Sad! Why aren't I British!?) I figured, "Okay, I'll give it a whirl." And nothing but "Ocean Of Night" really stuck out at me. But for some reason, I kept going back to this record. And started watching some live videos on YouTube and I was floored at how incredible they sound live. They really expand their sound, and bring it. I mean, listen to a full band version of "Nothing." How could you possibly improve on a song that good? Oh, but they do! Editors live, it seems, are what I want The National to be. I'm really excited t see them live for myself in February.

Anyway, In Dream. I have totally fallen in love with it over the last few weeks, and I'm just warning you: Editors could be my band of 2016. That's how it's shaping up already.

Favorite Tracks: Ocean Of Night, Forgiveness, Life Is a Fear

9. Chvrches-Every Open Eye
What is my favorite genre of music? Sad bastard acoustic pop? Moody bastard rock? Pop-punk with a lot of "oh ohs" and "yeah yeahs?" Well, I'm beginning to think it's female-fronted electro-pop. And there's nobody doing it better these days than Chvrches. This record wasn't as great as The Bones of What You Believe but it's still a solid pop record. And Lauren Mayberry has definitely become a better singer.

Favorite Tracks: Leave a Trace, Clearest Blue, Keep You On My Side

10. My Morning Jacket-The Waterfall
Much like Frank Turner's newest record, this is a collection of songs by a trusty and true rock band. My Morning Jacket are great at what they do, and this album is just one more example. Sometimes you don't have to reinvent the wheel to do something great. Yet another record without a weak or skippable track. And c'mon, there aren't many front men better than Jim James.

Favorite Tracks: Thin Line, Get the Point, Compound Fracture

11. Titus Andronicus-The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Too many people ignored this record, and unjustly so. Patrick Stickles is a straight out genius, and this is just one more example of his brilliance. Not everyone would even attempt to write a triple-disc, 98 minute rock opera with an intermission, full-on choral numbers, "Auld Lang Syne," a Pogues (!) cover, and an actual plot with characters! I feel like Stickles was always building up to this, and it's refreshing to find a meat-and-potatoes rock band being this ambitious. Rock is somewhat ignored these days because people don't seem to think you can do anything ambitious or innovative. Well, Titus Andronicus proves again and again that that is bullshit.

Favorite Tracks: Dimed Out, Fired Up, Stranded (On My Own)

Honorable Mentions:
Belle and Sebastian-Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Panda Bear-Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Admiral Fallow-Tiny Rewards
Destroyer-The Poison Hour

Most Disappointing Records:

Beirut-No, No, No
I've spoke about this at length but I'm sorry to say this record just didn't work for me a whole. It felt like sketches or ideas of songs, and nothing except for "No, No, No" and "Gibraltar" felt full fleshed out and realized. But I still love Beirut, and they came off way better live, so I'll just accept this album with a shrug, and be glad we got two great songs off of it.

Ellie Goulding-Delirium
I'm not sure why I'm so disappointed in this record. Well, I guess because I LOVE her second album. I still listen to it to this day. But between then and Delirium, Ellie blew up. And that's okay. She's great, I love her, I want her to do well. But Delirium is just another run-of-the-mill mainstream pop record, and it's stripped of anything that made Ellie stand out from all the other female pop stars. I do think the second half of the record is pretty strong, and there are some very enjoyable songs on the album but Ellie doesn't show any personality on it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Favorite Concerts of 2015

1. Dry the River at The Music Hall of Williamsburg
I've written about this show extensively, and yes, I'm still pretty heartbroken but I'm glad I have the memories of this show. And that's all there is to say about that.

2. We Were Promised Jetpacks at Pier 83/The Mercury Lounge/Warsaw 
Yes, I ended up seeing We Were Promised Jetpacks three times this year. And my goodness, has my opinion of their live shows changed! In fact, I've now seen them five times in total and they have gotten better each time. WWPJ are a solid band, and I am really excited for their future because they're still young and they're getting stronger.

3. Frank Turner at Irving Plaza
I've been to a lot of shows, and I've seen a lot of different artists but I don't think I have as much at anyone else's show than I do at a Frank Turner one. He seems to always be giving 100% from the very start, and nobody has more fun at a Frank Turner show than Frank Turner. I've talked about how off-putting it is to watch someone on stage who just does not want to be there but with Frank that's never a problem. He is loads of fun, especially when you're the type of person who likes to shouts along to songs like I do. I've seen him three times now and he never disappoints. The best thing about this show was that I brought someone who had never seen/heard him before and LOVED him.

4. Andrew Bird at Le Poisson Rouge
I'm pretty much ride or die for the Birdman at this point but this show was still a treat. Getting to hear "Anonanimal" for the first time since 2009 should've been good enough but getting to hear "Tenuousness" and "Armchairs" for the first time EVER (I know, you didn't think there could possibly be an Andrew Bird song I haven't heard live) was so exciting. And then he played new songs! That sounded like Armchair Apocrypha stuff! I'm just so happy that it seems like he's gotten out of his old-timey, one microphone phase and will start making great pop songs again. And guess what? I get to see him again in April!

5. Beirut at Dansforth Music Hall
Yes, I flew all the way to Toronto to see Beirut. And it was completely worth it. The only other time I had seen Zach Condon live was in 2011 at Central Park Summerstage. And I wasn't close at all. He was great but I felt very disconnected. Well, Dansforth is small, and we were right at the stage. And Zach and company were FANTASTIC. I wasn't a fan of the new record at all but the new stuff came off so good live. It was worth getting up at 6 after going to bed at 2 (after the EL VY show the night before) to fly to another country. Zach Condon is one of the most talented musicians making music today.

Honorable Mention: My Morning Jacket at The Beacon Theater
I don't even think I was enjoying myself at this show while it was happening but once I left I was like, "ALL THE MY MORNING JACKET! ALL OF IT!" Jim James is so fucking great, you guys. The whole band is so fantastic. This was a bit of a religious experience. Even though I've seen MMJ already, and I've been listening to them for years. But with religious experiences, you don't know they're happening until they're over and you're like, "WHOA! What just happened?" Well, that's what happened at the Beacon.

Most Disappointing: Glen Hansard at The Beacon Theater
Ah, jeez, I hate to be negative on this post but I haven't been this disappointed after a concert in a long, long time. And I know what you're thinking: Glen!? Really? Really. And don't get me wrong, he was giving it his all but his setlist and the crowd were a major disappointment. He primarily did his solo stuff, which I guess I should've expected but I could really take or leave his solo stuff. I don't mind it but it's nothing I want to listen to regularly. And holy crap, the crowd. I've never felt so young and out of place, and I've been to a MTC matinee! The crowd sat the whole time and didn't say a word. I've hear more noise during a Broadway play! I think what was even more disappointing is the fact that I know he can put on a fantastic show. Some of my fondest concert-going memories are courtesy of Glen Hansard. But now I have to reconsider shelling out big money to see him again.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

if it ever goes wrong, I'll write you into all of my song

I was trying to wait until this weekend to write about Majical Cloudz's new record Are You Alone? but I can't wait that long. It's too good. It's the only thing I want to listen to anymore, and when I'm not listening to it, I just keeping thinking, "okay, when can I listen to Majical Cloudz again?" I haven't felt this strongly about a new release since Nobody Wants to Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave. Oh, yes, it's that good.

My history with Majical Cloudz is a strange one. Upon hearing their name come up a few times, I streamed Impersonator maybe a day or two before it was released, decided it was amazing, and bought it on vinyl. I even listed it on my Favorite Albums of 2013 midyear list but after a few months, I stopped listening to it. I never, ever revisited it either. But when their second album was announced, I got excited. I listened to it halfway through, shrugged my shoulders, and figured, "Well, I like the opening track. That's a great song." And it took about a week or two for me to revisit it.

I'm glad I did.

Majical Cloudz's music really needs some time to unravel for you. Upon first listen you're like, "Yeah, this guy's voice is great but uh, where's the music? Why is he so depressed? This is making me sad. I'm bored." And yeah, it does sound like a whole lot of the same thing when you first listen to one of their records (much like The Twilight Sad or Beach House) but then it will hit you, hard, and it will be one of the most rewarding listening experiences. Are You Alone? takes a few listens but it will hit you like a tidal wave, and it will all overcome you, and you will be in love. The record is beautiful. It's perfect. And it might just be the best record to come out in 2015.

I know what you're thinking. What about Viet Cong? What about Beach House? And Beach House? And Frank? Joanna Newsom? Sufjan!? Well, other than Viet Cong, I expected the others to be great. And they are. They're quintessential Frank Turner and Beach House and Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom. And that's a great thing, truly, considering how much I enjoyed those albums. But it's always the ones you least expect that truly wow you. This record is infectious, and it's simplicity is exactly what makes it so beautiful. There isn't a weak track on it.  And lyrically, it might be the best written record of the year. Devon Walsh (whose vocals are also so on point) doesn't write lyrics that are necessarily elaborate. He's not trying to write these complicated metaphors. It all fits the stark sparseness of the music. But they still say so much. Something like "you gotta learn to love me," or "remember when we used to say, "I don't know" and it was okay? I am going back to knowing nothing now," or "will you let me change?," or of course, my personal favorite, "if it ever goes wrong, I'll write you into all of my songs." I could go on forever and ever about how fantastic of a song "Downtown" is. "Downtown" and "Are You Alone?" and "If You're Lonely" and "Heavy" and and and...

And of course, there's the whole tone of the record. It's melancholy, sure but hopeful. It almost plays out like a concept album. The narrator of these songs is unsure of himself but sick of being lonely and ready to change and fall in love. And it all culminates with "Downtown," which is probably the best love song to come out in a long time. These feelings are real. They're relateable. They feel real. And genuine. I can often tell when artists, especially pop singers, are just pandering to their audiences (looking at you, Adele.) But Devon Walsh just feels so genuine.

And why?

Because he wrote this lyric:

in 1988 we were born, we survived
at the moment I sing, we're alive

We were born in 1988. And we're alive. And what's more genuine than that?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Song of the Week

This was a tough one this week. Between Thank Your Lucky Stars, which is unsurprisingly fantastic, and Divers, which, my goodness, and a few other great songs sprinkled about, it was hard to pick one song to write about. But Divers, wow. I always expect to love whatever Joanna Newsom releases (hey, much like Beach House!) so I shouldn't be shocked but she really expanded her sound and made it accessible (not that I cared if it was accessible, I mean, Ys is my favorite record of hers) and for the first time ever, I want Joanna's songs to be LONGER. But between "Divers" and "Leaving the City" and "Time, a Symptom" and "Sapokanikan," the record is just spectacular. Definitely one of the best releases of 2015. She is truly one of the most consistent artists releasing music right now.

But my song of the week is by Josh Ritter. Now, I love Josh Ritter, and I think he is one of the best lyricists but I don't listen to him as much as I used to. It's my fault really. Josh hasn't changed at all in quality or sound, it's just that I don't listen to as much folk-based music anymore. But his new releases and tour announcements still get all excited. In fact, I just saw him open for Damien Rice this past summer and he was, as always, fantastic. Much like Joanna Newsom, Josh Ritter is very very consistent. And he just released a new record, Sermon on the Rocks. I didn't quite like his last album, The Beast in Its Tracks but again, it was me, Josh, not you. It got lost in the Pedestrian Verse shuffle, and I never really gave it that great of a chance and never revisited. But I am enjoying Sermon so far. Especially "Getting Ready to Get Down." Every lyric is aces. Every line is better than the next one. My favorite? "Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet/what kind of God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs." But "to live the way you please doesn't sound like possession" is a very close second. THEY'RE ALL FANTASTIC. I don't want to say this is a return to form for Josh because he never left it but Sermon on the Rocks is my return to Josh Ritter's music.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Song of the Week

There were a lot of big releases this week (Beach House! Josh Ritter! Majical Cloudz!) but I haven't listened to them enough to really develop an opinion yet. But uh, surprise Beach House? What could be better?

No, no, this week's song is from Hamilton. You all know Hamilton. How could you not? Four out of five stories on every theater-related website is about that musical. Now, I don't really love it as much as everyone else does. Or really, I don't love it at all. I haven't seen it yet (has anyone? or is that just an urban myth? Are people actually in the room where it happens?) and I can't find it in me to listen to the whole score in one sitting. Part of it has to do with the fact that I don't like rap at all, and another part is the simple fact that I don't listen to many showtunes these days. Especially new stuff. But I think the opening of the musical is great, really, but the real standout for me (thus far) is "The Room Where It Happens." Talk about a perfect showtune. It has fantastic lyrics (sorry, it's so simple but I'm not over the line "well I arranged the meeting, I arranged the venue, the menu, the seating"), it advances the plot, and Leslie Odom Jr. is so great on it (so is Daveed Diggs.) I am totally in love with the way he sings "hold you nose and close your eyes." But the song is also a great exercise in developing character. Listen to it and you too will be like "GRRR ALEXANDER HAMILTON!" I totally can see why Burr wanted to shoot him.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Song of the Week

Sorry I didn't post last week. I didn't really have a song to write about. Last week was dominated by seeing the revival of Spring Awakening and reliving/weeping for my lost youth (and Moritz Steifel) and then having my faith (no pun intended) restored in the American play/theater/the written word by Lucas Hnath's The Christians at Playwrights Horizons. Seriously, go see that play. It's one of the better written plays I have seen in a long, long time,


This week belonged to Chvrches. Their new record, Every Eye Open is like an assault of electro-pop goodness. I'm still navigating the second half of the album but overall, I think it's terrific. It's kind of reductive to say it's more of the same from Chvrches but it is. They have quickly established their sound and mastered it. And lucky for them, it's a sound I really, really love (as evident from my love of Tegan and Sara, Ellie Goulding, Sia, etc.) I think it's more immediate than The Bones of What You Believe (and I ended up loving that record) and there's real sense of urgency and energy throughout. Do I want them to change up their sound? Did I expect them to? No and no. Keep on keeping on, Chvrches. And not to mention, Lauren Mayberry sounds really, really fantastic. I really just want to shout/sing along with her.

So this week's song is "Leave a Trace." Now this is a fantastic pop song. I dare you not to listen to it a thousand times in a row.