Alright, with minimal ado, here are my ten (or eleven) favorite albums I heard in 2011. I listened to a hell of a lot this year, making this list harder to compile than usual. I spent the whole damn year in the car, driving to job interviews, commuting to work, checking out apartments of various quality. In a year of life-changing transitions, music becomes even more important to me, as a constant keeping me sane no matter how unpredictable and scary life becomes.
Unlike last year, when Janelle Monae released one of my favorite albums of all time, The ArchAndroid, there isn’t one thing that stands out as a clear, number one favorite, so these are presented in no particular order. A lot of these were surprises, some by artists that I was totally unaware of before this year. Perhaps even more surprising is that veteran bands could still surprise me. Wilco’s eighth LP, and The Roots’ thirteenth LP turned out to be some of the most exciting, vital stuff they’ve ever come out with. I’ve always been of the mindset that bands tend to start strong and keep making music with diminishing returns over the years. Maybe as a young person, I was misled by the clearly incorrect notion that young bands are where innovation and change comes from, but those veteran bands showed that sometimes change comes from a bunch of amazing, aging musicians competing against their past selves to prove that they still have that same spark.
Anyway, here’s the list. It’s obviously subjective, which is why I would love to hear anyone else’s top ten and discover music I might have missed. But these are the albums from 2011 that stick with me, that told a journey, that contained those moments that make you drop whatever you’re doing and simply marvel. I hope you give these a listen and enjoy them too - my spotify playlist, featuring many favorite tracks from the year, is available here for your sampling pleasure.
Let’s dive in!
Honorable Mention: Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil
This one didn’t quite make the top ten because it’s essentially just Deerhoof doing its usual weird thing, without anything particularly new or earth-shattering. It was, however, done extremely well, with some of their most accessible, hooky songs to date, without sacrificing any of their uniqueness. “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness,” one standout, seems to be some sort of superhero anthem mixed with wistful love song. Strange, and outstanding.
The Top Ten
Cults - Cults
Cults is a deceptive album, hiding dark, introspective lyrics under sunshine and catchy melodies. My love for Brill-Building/Girl-Group pop songs certainly means I was predisposed to like this album, but the duo doesn’t just lift tried-and-true chord progressions - it adds a unique spin and a refreshing darkness. It’s a lot more Shangri-Las than Shirelles. All of the songs are well-crafted little gems, simple but perfect, and the songs, from opening cut “Abducted” on, deal with a lot of the more unpleasant, unseemly aspects of modern life. “Never Heal Myself,” a bouncy ode to a wounded psyche, toes that line well, but it’s the massive late-album anthem “You Know What I Mean” that fully explores that back-and-forth dynamic between poppy feel-goodery and moody introspection. It sounds like that juxtaposition would be awkward or gimmicky, but instead, the album is a sort of escapist fantasy, about keeping up an old-fashioned, optimistic attitude even in a world where it’s increasingly hard to buy into that idealism.
The Roots - Undun
This one showed up late in the year and just blew me away. It’s wildly ambitious, not only telling a narrative story but doing it chronologically backwards. The hooks throughout are massive, particularly the guest spots by neo-soul singers like Bilal. And it’s risky in the best way, ending with a bizarre art-jazz, Sufjan Stevens-infused four-part suite. Not bad for an ensemble with not only twelve previous LPs, but a day job as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. But, as with all of the Roots’ albums, it’s really ?uestlove’s party. Just listen to that drum fill that kicks in to start “The Other Side,” or his wild free-form soloing in that closing suite. I’ve read a description of The Band’s Levon Helm as “the only drummer who can make you cry,” but clearly that was from someone who never heard ?uestlove. The drumming on the album pushes everything forward with a propulsive, insistent rhythm. He’s now reached the level where his beats are indistinguishable from the classic soul hip-hop artists used to sample. He’s simply amazing, and so is the whole album.
Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
Here’s a classic snotty-kids-with-guitars band who just does it right. What elevates it to another level, for me, are the little touches that make some of the tracks sound like outtakes from George Harrison’s solo catalog. There’s a seventies-inspired scuzziness to the guitar lines, and artfully deployed piano lines, that evokes that post-Beatles psychedelic era. Opening track “Weekend” sets the tone well, the first of many songs that starts off one way and evolves in unexpected ways as the song goes on. Every song on this album is a small little journey, starting with an already-strong melody and developing it in new directions. There’s a restlessness there that fits their youthful persona - they seemingly have too many ideas to let a song just stay in one mood. Tracks like “Smile” show that the best is yet to come, that even when tackling heavier, slower material, the band shows that same kind of adventurousness. Of everything I heard this year, this band is the one with the most potential. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
Mayer Hawthorne - How Do You Do?
Mayer Hawthorne is a nerdy white guy from Detroit who happens to be able to do a killer Curtis Mayfield impression. It’s always tricky territory when someone tries to revive classic soul sounds devoid of their political and racial context, but what lets Mayer Hawthorne dodge that thorny territory is that his second album is really a meditation on his relationship with the music he loves. It’s classic soul filtered through his life, through hip-hop, through Detroit’s subsequent collapse, dealing with the legacy of Motown instead of just pretending nothing post-Motown ever happened. Beyond my heady, pretentious views, it’s an undeniably fun album, full of great jams ideal for singing along loudly in the car. “You Called Me” might be one of the most joyful tracks of the year, but “The Walk” is the best kind of groovy. The album strikes a good balance between more serious tracks and the kind of retro-soul party jams that get the crowd moving.
Mister Heavenly - Out of Love
Mister Heavenly made an album so weird and idiosyncratic that they had to invent a new term to describe it: “doom-wop.” It sounds like a mix of hard-edged indie rock and old-school doo-wop, a combination that only these collaborators could come up with. The band includes members of The Unicorns and Man Man, and though you might think that the idiosyncratic visions of those two groups wouldn’t mesh well, they find a very interesting middle ground. Some of the songs echo the past, but with a twist, as in the case of “I Am a Hologram,” but tracks like “Pineapple Girl” or “Reggae Pie” evolve into something else entirely. It’s a great-sounding album, with an unbelievably high energy level. It honestly sounds like it could fall apart into chaos at any point, but never quite does, and that’s the mark of something special. A great surprise.
The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts
There’s a reason my first real article for this blog was a glowing review of this album. The Go! Team throws every element imaginable into a blender and what comes out the other side sounds like an unholy blend of old educational videos, cheerleader chants, and out-of-control marching bands. It’s schizophrenic at times, changing radically between moods, but it’s never boring, and never goes where you expect. The best thing about this album, in particular, is the way it appropriates definitively un-cool genres of music and embraces their weirdness. “Super Triangle” sounds like something you would hear while watching a laserdisc in high school, while “Yosemite Theme” could pass for something piping through ancient speakers at a National Park. That willingness to experiment, to draw from even the least hip, least explored corners of functional music, makes this band so much fun, and the album is wall-to-wall insanity.
Wilco - The Whole Love
Wilco had honestly nothing to prove at this point, but this album makes a definitive statement that this is still a band that matters, a band that will push themselves to create something unique and amazing. When “Art of Almost,” already an amazing track, kicks back in after most bands would have ended it, you know that the band is swinging for the fences. It’s a great-sounding record, the first release by their self-run label, and every instrument has a phenomenal quality. You can listen all the way through the album focused just on the bass, or drums, or the keyboards, and have an equally rewarding, totally different experience each time. This is a band where any one of the members could be fronting their own band, but they combine their talents in an amazing way. Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting is at it’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot best, oblique lyrics and all. By the time you get through the last song, an extended take where you actually hear the band in the process of learning the song, it’s hard not to be floored. It’s a document of an amazing group of musicians at the peak of their ability.
tUnE-YarDs - W H O K I L L
I didn’t quite get this one at first, but it’s definitely one where listening to a song a few times reveals interesting layers. The way the songs are constructed, a weird wall-of-sound involving seemingly endless variations of Merrill Garbus’ singing piled on top of each other, is a great showcase for the potential of the human voice to create beautiful, strange sounds. I’ll admit that as a very non-political person, the clearly political content of this album went way over my head (she hates the police I guess?) but I don’t think understanding her points is necessary to appreciating her sound, a mix of afro-beat, a cappella, and quirky indie-girl pop. Many of those things can be disastrous if done wrong, as can the ukulele, but she somehow puts it all together magnificently. An amazing piece of work, and something I predict will be one of the more influential albums to come out. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking - nothing sounds quite like this, and I want more!
Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams
This one makes the list entirely on the merit of two songs, embodying opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Opening cut “Always Looking” is a rollicking explosion of punky energy, mixing Kristen Gundren’s high-octane vocals, cool backup singing, and kick-ass guitar lines. Later in the album, you get “Coming Down,” an emotional peak I didn’t know this band was capable of hitting, culminating in one long, haunting note sustained by Gundren as the band smashes away melodramatically. Clearly, the glue holding together these disparate halves is Gundren’s powerhouse of a voice, but the point is that this album contained some of the best straight-ahead rockers and some of the best ballads I heard all year, all over the course of one album. Something for everyone! Seriously great stuff.
Beyonce - 4
Oh, Beyonce. You are fantastic. Let’s run this down: opening track “1+1” kicks off a run of some knockout power ballads, some of the best Beyonce’s ever done. But what makes the album truly astounding is the sequence of tracks my friend affectionately refers to as “the killer three” - “Love On Top,” followed by “Countdown,” then “End of Time.” All three are unbelievable jams. “Love on Top” is an incredible piece of retro-soul bliss that changes keys seemingly just to highlight how undaunted Beyonce is by any challenge. “Countdown,” one of the weirdest pieces of mainstream pop all year, uses a marching band and incomprehensible lyrics about a “bouf” effectively to create something that this white boy can describe only as “bumpin.” Finally, underappreciated gem “End of Time” alternates between funky brass and a powerful blast of vocals. Those three, in sequence, combine to form an unstoppable block of incredible invention, catchiness, and soul, and they are easily my most listened-to tracks of the year. Beyonce, with this album, proves that something immensely popular can still be innovating, bold, esoteric, experimental, and just straight-up great music. 4 is Beyonce’s best album, and gives me hope that mainstream music can still be amazing.
Alright, that’s too much of me! Please, please, please feel free to agree, disagree, debate, or suggest alternatives. I do this to share my favorites with my friends, and I want them to do the same so I can discover more music, especially stuff I’ve overlooked.
2011 was a crazy year for me full of big life changes. It was also full of some terrific music, and I’d like to share what meant the most to me this year. So without further ado, here are picks for top songs of the year.
Did I say “without further ado”? I should have said, “and now, some ado”! Bear with me here. The usual disclaimers apply: this is obviously just one man’s opinion and I’m not going to argue that it’s anything more than that (hence labeling the list “favorites” rather than “best of 2011”). Considering that I am someone who who organizes my closet regularly and to an excessive degree, it should surprise nobody that I enjoy the list-making process. The fun of sharing a list, however, is twofold. First, as always, it’s part of my number one goal when writing about music - to expose people to stuff they might not have heard and could love. Second, I enjoy the dialogue at the end of the year, and seeing what other people peg as their personal preferences. So, dear internet, drop me a line or a comment or an email with your opinions on the subject. I know people on the internet usually don’t have strong opinions, but I figure it’s worth asking just in case.
Two more disclaimers:
1) These are in no particular order, because honestly what’s the qualitative difference between your fourth favorite song of the year and your fifth?
2) In the next couple of days I will publish my favorite albums of the year - anything from those albums is ineligible from this list. So these aren’t necessarily my absolute favorite songs of the year (notice the absence of Beyonce’s “Love on Top”) but they are standout tracks from albums that didn’t quite make my personal top ten.
OK - read, listen, enjoy, share, argue. Here we go.
“It Takes Time To Be A Man” - The Rapture (from In The Grace Of Your Love)
It’s hard to believe such a simple song could be so powerful. The track is pretty much one very simple little riff, looped over and over. A little guitar, a tinkle of a piano line, a touch of bass. It’s what they do on top of that foundation which makes this so compelling. The song makes you wait for it, but when the ecstatic cacophony of harmonies finally explodes, it’s pretty undeniable. I can’t say for certain what the song’s about, but it has a powerfully bittersweet mood, and some simple yet effective lyrics, that lend it some gravity. Plus, they bring back the very cheesy 80’s-pop saxophone featured elsewhere on the album for one more good/bad solo. If there’s one thing I love, it’s some awesomely cheesy sax. It’s elegiac and catchy, a song to accompany dusk if ever there was one.
“Breaking Down” - Florence and the Machine (from Ceremonials)
I’ve heard arguments that Florence Welsh’s lyrics can be a little inscrutable, her songs a little bombastic, her arrangements too busy. This song embodies all three of those criticisms, and works perfectly. Of all the songs on her latest album, this is the one where the elements congeal most agreeably. It’s still recognizably a pop song, but with some weird chord progressions and a hook of sorts floating out of a detuned piano. Mostly, though, this is a song where the arrangement doesn’t interfere with the biggest strength of the group - Florence’s voice. “The Machine” is effectively a delivery system to get her mighty singing in your ears with maximum oomph, and a song like this, driving forward with simple lyrics and a thumping beat, is the track where the group best figures out how to let the complexity of the music serve the emotional core of the song. All that sounds technical and dry, so maybe I could better explain it as the most chill-inducing track I heard all year.
“Time Spent In Los Angeles” - Dawes (from Nothing is Wrong)
I have, interestingly, never spent even one minute of time in Los Angeles, so I can’t really speak to how successfully this song captures the feel of that city. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful, catchy track, owing obvious debts to classic roots-rockers like The Band or The Eagles. It jangles along amiably, and, as many of the songs that made this list, has a distinctive mood to it. There’s nothing revolutionary in the songcraft, just a well-written ode to a city that utilizes some great group vocals.
“Henry Don’t Got Love” - Le Butcherettes (from Sin Sin Sin)
People say that pop music isn’t really bold or dangerous anymore, but Le Butchettes seemingly undercut that notion (or, maybe the fact that they are still relatively unknown supports it). The band writes short, weird songs - vaguely political, seemingly pissed-off, and always filled with raging guitars. This song exemplifies what they do best. You can’t really figure out what’s going on, but it feels cool and transgressive. And, in some of the deranged songbird melodies floating in and out of all the chaos, there’s a hint of beauty. I think that’s why this band stands out from some of their heavier-thrashing brethren: little moments suggesting a beautiful melody hidden within all the punk posturing. It’s hard to find more intensity than this band achieves when firing on all cylinders.
“Video Games” - Lana Del Rey (single)
I have literally no interest in chiming in on this horrible debate over whether Lana Del Rey is too beautiful/fake/corporate to be good. I’m just tired of it, and have nothing to add. However, the face that launched a thousand pitchfork comments has undeniable talent. Like the 60’s chanteuse icons she idolizes, she has a way of delivering a song in a way that is highly distinctive and highly effective without being accessibly, obviously emotive. The gorgeous string arrangements add to the retro charm of the piece, and the lyrics are full of hazily-formed imagery that matches the faded-out vibe. We’re going to all have to have a lot of arguments about her in 2012, but this song, taken in isolation, is a gem.
“Dig A Little Deeper” - Peter, Bjorn & John (from Gimme Some)
Hard to intellectualize this one, it’s just insanely infectious, the biggest earworm of the year (except perhaps that new Rihanna single). These guys just scream fun and dare to be unabashed, sugary pop in an era where that ambition is less and less respectable. If you can listen to this song without singing along at some point, I would be shocked. It’s just bouncy to an absurd degree, the soundtrack for turning around any bad day. A song you literally cannot listen to on headphones, because the gleeful head-bopping/strutting/silly dancing that will inevitably follow will make you seem like a crazy person to unknowing passers-by.
The most danceable, club-ready, drive-around-at-night-with-your-windows-down thing I’ve heard in ages. Justice, seemingly questing to write something more memorable than their monster hit “D.A.N.C.E.,” discovered their proggy side and resurrected the most outlandish synth sounds they could. It’s a song that ridiculously tries to encompass all of civilization into a monster dance party, reaching for the most grandiose concept enthusiastically, without really caring if they fall short. It’s somehow very smart and very stupid at the same time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sad Girls” - Big Troubles (from Romantic Comedy)
This one flew under the radar a bit, because they aren’t really breaking new ground here. But the whole album was full of solid, earnest 90’s boy alterna-rock. It’s dreamy and a little nostalgic, with lyrics that offer sincerity with just a hint of self-awareness. But really it all comes down to songwriting 101: the chorus has a lovely chord progression, and they pull of a nice little key change. The same things that made Burt Bacharach a star still hold true, which is kind of refreshing. Just a good song, especially for a rainy day.
This one, I’ll admit, likely made the cut because I will forever associate it with the mind blowing final moments of Breaking Bad’s season finale (watch here, but SPOILERS, obviously). It’s a lovely song, though, with a subtly funky beat and some super-laid back vocals by Norah Jones. I’ve never loved her stuff in the past, but this makes me think that she’s got the talent, and just needs to find the right collaborators to make magic happen. The whole album, a weird spaghetti western/pop-fusion passion project by Danger Mouse, is full of great stuff, but this is the standout track (sorry, Jack White). What strikes me in particular is the subtlety of everything - the orchestral arrangements are lush and sophisticated, but always done with precision. Unlike less experienced arrangers, Luppi doesn’t let his excitement for any instrument or instruments cloud his judgement and end up with an overblown production. It’s just a bunch of very well-performed, interlocking parts all serving the overarching goal of making a perfect little song.
“Our Day Will Come” - Amy Winehouse (from Lioness: Hidden Treasures)
Obviously, losing Amy Winehouse was a major blow to the music world, and a major loss. Her legacy was already felt during her lifetime - the massive crossover ubiquity of Adele’s album wouldn’t be possible without the success of Back to Black, nor would any of the soul revivalists I enjoy so much be enjoying the audience they’ve found. Lioness was a mixed bag, as one would expect with a cobbled-together posthumous release, but this track was a standout. Her take on the Ruby and the Romantics classic reminds us of everything she did best. There’s a retro-fun playfulness to the piece - as always, her fusion of doo-wop harmonies, classic soul delivery, and hip hop beats creates something that feels contemporary yet timeless. Her taste and style will likely be as large a part of her legacy as her vocals. And this is certainly one of the finest performances by that incredible voice - dripping with emotion, jazzy phrasing, and liveliness. It’s an optimistic, hopeful song made bittersweet by her absence. A beautiful parting gift from an iconic star. I can only assume her legacy will grow over time. It’s sad to think that we’ve heard the last from her.
Those are some of my songs of the year. Check back soon for the main event - top ten albums - and some sillier lists to follow.
My New Years resolution should be to try writing some short articles next year, am I right?
It’s been awhile. But I’ve been busy. Life happens! Life finds a way (never too busy for Jurassic Park). I shipped off to NYC and back to premiere a piece of music my friend and I wrote, I went to see The Bynars play a show at T.T. the Bear’s, I closely followed the saga of those “Super Bass” girls, I got sucked into the endless, delicious abyss of The Millionaire Matchmaker. In short, I’ve done everything but write.
Thanksgiving seems the ideal time to get back into the game. Mostly because at last I can discuss the impending wonderfulness of Christmas without drawing the anger of those who scoffed at me when I started making my shopping list in mid-October. October was a stressful month for me, so one day, in a moment of weakness, I put on some Christmas music to get through the day. Once the floodgates were open, I couldn’t stop. Christmas is just such a phenomenal concept - you get to go shopping for your friends, eat all the best food, enjoy snow, and generally feel warm magic all around you. In short, it’s fantastic, and I wish it was Christmas today.
It’s a month-and-a-half long holiday of gradually-building anticipation, so it’s important to have a really killer seasonal playlist for accompanying midnight car rides home from holiday parties. I won’t list the whole thing here, but consider these my essential Christmas jams. If we’re being brutally honest, the process of eating an entire roll of those incredible Trader Joe’s candy cane Joe-Joes is my jam, but listening to these songs comes close to approximating that feeling.
“Christmas Wrapping,” by The Waitresses, is a great song by any standard, not just the (admittedly) lower standard of what constitutes good Christmas music. It’s got an instantly memorable riff, a strange cacophony of horns, and fun patter-song vocals. It’s way too long, but nearly earns that length by telling an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end (something most bands only pull off with more than a dash of pretentiousness or, God forbid, a double-disc concept album (except that when The Who made concept albums, it was still cool, so they are excluded from my generalizations)). Most pieces of Christmas entertainment fall definitively into one of two camps - (a) Christmas is amazing and fills our hearts with joy, or (b) Christmas is a melancholy holiday full of disappointment and sad self-reflection. Both can be done well, but what I like about this song is that it more closely resembles the experience of a normal person, jumping back and forth between feeling stressed by the holiday and enjoying it. As an internal monologue, it works pretty well. I think it will resonate with anyone who has ever considered checking out of the whole Christmas thing entirely, only to rediscover what makes it a special time of year.
(Yes, I realize a lot of sentimental garbage is mixed in with my writing, but honestly, if you’re not that into the magic of Christmas, I would find it odd that you’ve read this far into the article).
Now, I’m sure when I say that I love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You,” people who know me would assume I’m being silly or ironic. And while I’ll admit that the campiness and the lack of restraint in the production increase my enjoyment of the song, I maintain that it really is a good song, or at least good enough to listen to as a guilty pleasure. It’s written with old-fashioned chord progressions, and wouldn’t really be out-of-place on any of the 60’s Christmas songs by The Ronettes or The Crystals. Sure, the sentiment is tacky, but you kind of get swept up by it! I’m realizing now that I have little ammunition in trying to convincingly justify why I like this song. But I’ll leave it at this - something that aims to please this obviously isn’t necessarily inherently horrible. Admit it: when this comes on the radio and no one else is around, you kind of love it.
My last pick is this version of “O Holy Night,” originally performed by Trombone Shorty on an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Now, let’s get this straight. Studio 60 was a dreadful, terrible, awful show, in ways that Nathan Rabin explains better than I ever could. Even the scene that first introduced this excellent arrangement was a well-meaning, but misguided piece of sentiment ham-handedly thrown in by Aaron Sorkin to make the audience forget how uninteresting his characters were. And yet, there are few recordings more moving, few more shiver-inducing, than this one. The instruments combine perfectly in a way to create a somber, spiritual mood throughout, until the soaring trumpet runs in the final few cadences elevate the proceedings into the stratosphere. If anything captures what it feels like in December to reflect back, gathering up all the victories, defeats, and indelible moments that made up the past year, this is it.
There are more, but those are the three best. Enjoy them with some egg nog and let the spirit of the season wash over you!
Today’s a very special day, because going by the arbitrary number system we humans use to make time comprehensible, the numbers line up. It’s 11/11/11 - somewhere, some kid is turning eleven years old, which must be just mind-blowing. NPR Music put together a typically fantastic program celebrating the numerological quasi-holiday by assembling songs that must be cranked up to eleven for maximum enjoyment. In that vein, I’m posing another fun musical question to consider - what are the best eleventh tracks on albums? (I am excluding, of course, best-ofs). The way these things tend to time out, many of the selections I picked are album-closers, which makes them sort of obvious choices since, of course, smart musicians go out on a strong selection. But some others are interesting in the way that they deliver a late-album pickup, a burst of energy well after the novelty of what you’re hearing may have worn off. So make a little playlist of these eleven tunes and listen to it eleven times or something. Other suggested 11/11/11 celebration - refusing to get out of bed until 11:11.
As always, the overlying theme of this article is just a flimsy excuse to talk about some tracks I really like. It turns out that at least a few of my absolute favorite songs of all time are elevens, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to share them.
1. ”I Shall Be Released” - The Band, Music from Big Pink
Bob Dylan and The Band were such backwards-looking nostalgists that pretty much everything they wrote together was an attempt to write songs that could pass as folk traditionals passed down generation to generation. This and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” come closest to achieving that. It’s a gorgeous song, and an exercise in simplicity. There’s not a single unnecessary word in the thing. And that frankly bizarre falsetto performance by Richard Manuel is haunting in the best way possible.
2. “Hypnotise” - The White Stripes, Elephant
This one’s a barn-burner, eh? True story - my brother and I used to play Starfox 64 through while listening to Elephant and try to time it just right so that Andross’ base would explode right at that cool moment in this song where the drums smash back in. We were pretty cool! Middle school was a pretty cool time where every get-together with my friends inevitably featured this album as the soundtrack. It’s pretty great, but there’s just nothing interesting or objective for me to add. For me, it will always be that album that was the most badass thing I’d ever heard when I was thirteen. And, perhaps because the album is ambitious at points, I think this song and “Ball And Biscuit,” as the straight-ahead rocker and slow blues jam, respectively, were important as a statement of identity. It’s a song that features all of the core values of the group - chiefly loudness and primal drumbeats.
3. “Tea for the Tillerman” - Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman
A contender not only for this list, but also the list of amazing songs that are only one minute or less. It shares a lot of virtues with “I Shall Be Released” - like that song, it creates some convincing imagery in very few lines. Maybe it takes a very short little song to capture the bigness of what it’s trying to sell. It’s a miniature slice of life as people go about their daily tasks, made even more fleeting by the way it disappears just as quickly as it appears. I love the trend of ending the album with a little coda, and wish more artists would try it.
Not much to say about this one. It’s an indie-funk rager that happens to have some bizarre lyrics addressing gender politics and ambiguous sexuality. In other words, it’s an Of Montreal song.
7. “If You Call” - Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way
There’s just so much to appreciate here. Ms. Jones’ delivery, of course. The pounding waltz feel used like a ticking clock pounding away as she waits to hear from her lover. But best of all, I think, is how the song chooses to deploy those mighty Dap-King horns. The song takes a hot-and-cold approach, letting them sit out for awhile so that their entrances are always big, goosebump-inducing moments. The arrangement, from the strings to the broadway-style belter of a finale, makes it a cinematic little story all on its own. I once heard Ms. Jones describe this song as not only an expression of romantic longing, but spiritual/existential longing as well - waiting to hear from God (or whoever) to get some clear answers to a burning question. In her case, she waited for years to get that call - only late in life has she been able to unleash her talent onto the world. So it’s not only a great song in its own right, but a little autobiographical as well.
I enjoyed the debut album by Cults immensely upon first listen. It’s definitely going to pop up on my best-of-2011 list. So, I interpret the title as a promise by the band that they’re going to return for a sophomore album and keep it going. It’s also a surprisingly uplifting little number considering that most of what comes before it is, though catchy, certainly dark in thematic matter. I’m still wrapping my head around this one, but it’s a good track and a very hooky album everyone needs to hear.
9. ”I Can’t Make It Alone” - Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis
I can’t find this one on YouTube for some reason, which is honestly a crime since it’s a showstopper. Just unbelievable. All of Dusty in Memphis is dripping with emotion and perfectly-delivered songs, but what you have to admire here is the way she sings the song right on the edge of schmaltz without ever crossing that line into campy delivery. She knows when to pull back, and that makes it pull on the heartstrings that much more.
Have you guys heard of this band, The Beatles? Anyway, this song is a snippet from that medley that makes all other pop music recorded since then seem woefully inadequate.
11. “Life in a Glass House” - Radiohead, Amnesiac
Certainly an excellent album-closer, particularly since I think it far outstrips everything preceding it on Amnesiac. Radiohead’s little dabble into New Orleans funeral brass is so sublime it makes me wish they had recorded more with this configuration of instruments. As usual for Radiohead, I can’t clearly explain what their thought process was in deciding to combine this traditional Americana with paranoid ramblings, but it strangely works. The song works for me because the overwhelmingly busy sound of the clarinet, trombone and trumpet improvising over each other (while that piano pounds on) sounds like the chaos of modern life threatening to drown out everything else. “There’s someone listening in” mutters Thom Yorke. Like Gene Hackman’s character in The Conversation, he knows all too well how easy it is for every private moment to end up recorded somewhere. And he’s right! We are listening in, which is both a clever little touch and a nice way of making the audience feel a little uncomfortable.
So there you have it - a list that varies wildly both in musical style and the coherence with which I try to recommend them. Enjoy your eleven-filled day, and start counting down to 12/12/12 when maybe I’ll do this again.
I think the funniest show on TV right now is probably Parks and Recreation. I’d call Breaking Bad the most artfully made. But the most pure enjoyment you can get out of a TV show comes from Adventure Time, a show that crams more wild ideas into a ten-minute episode than most kids programming musters in its entire existence. Cartoon Network had nothing this amazing when I was watching it. Honestly, Ed, Ed, and Eddy fans, I feel ya, but that show was not good.
Note: even more so than usual, my thoughts here really don’t do justice to the show (or really explain what it’s about, per se) so it’s probably worth it at this point to take a few minutes and watch an episode, or at least some clips on the website)
Consider the final thirty seconds of “The Other Tarts,” in many ways a typical episode. As always, Finn the human and his best friend, a dog with limitless contortionist abilities, have a quest - in this case, to deliver some royal tarts in stead of the royal tart-toter, who has gone insane. The show is heavily influenced by nerd culture - Dungeons and Dragons is a recurring touchstone. As in the case of the tabletop game beloved by indoor kids everywhere, the world of Adventure Time is one in which seemingly everyone has a fantastical task which will test the hero’s resolve. Just like that world, our protagonists agree to take on this, and every quest, simply because they are heroes whose function in life is to dabble in all things heroic (the show shares that sort of logic with The Venture Brothers, a very different show but one in which, similarly, Supervillainy is a perfectly reasonable career path). Our heroes finally accomplish their task, but after the episode has reached a satisfactory conclusion, the mad tart-toter bursts in and delivers these lines to end the episode:
It’s a totally out-of-left-field joke, one with no real point or connection to anything that’s happened before. The Adventure Time style of humor consists of these types of non sequiturs, often breaking or stretching the reality of the show but in a way that still makes sense given how out-there the show is (a property it shares with the best episodes of Community). Adventure Time delivers jokes in a way that is consistent with the philosophy of the whole show. It’s a more-is-more approach - you always get the sense that what you’re seeing really is a small fraction of a wide, weird world. Episodes often start in the middle of a battle, or in some bizarre location we’ve never seen before. They rarely establish any real reason underlying anything - it’s simply a wild place with undiscovered delights lurking around every corner.
That’s what makes the show so boundlessly creative. There’s a palatable joy to the proceedings - you get the sense that Pendleton Ward and co. are just having fun drawing whatever bizarre idea occurs to them to populate their show. It’s the kind of world a kid would want to inhabit: limitless and full of possibility. Like in any good fantasy, it’s a world you want to explore. Maybe I wasn’t watching the right stuff, but the Nicktoons of my youth didn’t feel this expansive.
The show also makes clever nods to contemporary pop culture even though it resides in a realm far removed from us. And I’m not talking about a Shrek-style wink at the audience type of thing. More often, the show will just indulge in weird musical interludes that sound remarkably close to contemporary indie music or autotune-heavy hip hop. When Jake meets the God of Partying in one bizarre episode, that deity of course turns out to be a huge, disembodied wolf’s head with a sideways baseball cap, which is funny precisely because it’s so hilariously stupid. That ironic remove is necessary to truly embrace what the show’s going for, at least in those jokes aimed at parents rather than kids. (That ironic distance from some of the material might make some people call this a hipster show, but those people would be idiots.) The animation, too, will pay homage to (or parody) great cartoons of the past, be it Hanna-Barbara classics or more recent anime.
But just the fact that this show is flat-out strange in such a daring doesn’t necessarily make it good children’s entertainment. What glues it all together is the sweetness and warmth at its core. The show interrogates the relationships between its characters in a surprisingly sophisticated way that rings true to how complicated relationships can be growing up. There are episodes where Finn and Jake try to fend for themselves, only to discover surprising ways they need each other. One episode deals with them getting increasingly irritated after agreeing to help a kindly old elephant - it tackles the theme of responsibility well and suggests how hurting someone’s feelings can at times be best for them, something most children’s programming wouldn’t try to address. Last night, I watched an episode where our heroes, lurking around the villainous Ice King’s hideout, cross the line into peeking too much into his personal life, casting them in a bad light even though he is still certainly despicable. That’s not to say the show is heavy-handed. These are themes you sort of have to tease out. Rarely does a character come out and state the theme to an episode, and more often than not, the real-world hook at the center of the fantastical story is more of a question than a statement. And it’s surrounded by so much insanity that the fun drowns out the weightier concept. It’s a good balance for kids - there are recognizable situations in their lives thrown in there, but never preached at them. Is there anything more annoying than children’s entertainment that just tells them what to do?
But regardless of what lesson the viewer is supposed to take away, the setting of Adventure Time, again, is what makes it unique. Put yourself in the mindset of a kid. You know a little about the world - your likes and dislikes, odd facts from school, and so on, but you have yet to get to the point where you have a comprehensive, logical view of how the world works. Economics, politics, the real subtleties of interpersonal relationships: these are umbrella concepts that organize our world that we don’t really figure out till high school. Our world, then, is one where a kid is constantly making missteps because he doesn’t know the rules. Why do we follow certain behavior in the movies as opposed to the supermarket? It all needs to be improvised on the fly. In Adventure Time, our heroes always end up in some dungeon where they have to accomplish some arbitrary task, or obey magical rules that don’t make much sense to them. The wildness and unpredictablility of Adventure Time’s world may seem chaotic to adult eyes once we have a fairly reasonable grasp on our own world, but to a child it’s dead-on. Whether questing for magic gems or navigating school, at that age every new experience has has the possibility for both new dangers and unexpected enlightenment. Adventure Time’s protagonists may mess up constantly, but never enough to stop them from enthusiastically embracing whatever adventures come their way.
Yesterday, I woke up feeling terrible. My head was pounding, and I spent almost the entirety of the day holed up in my room, drifting in and out of fitful slumber. It was the kind of frustrating day where I got increasingly nervous about the fact that I had wasted another day of my life without accomplishing a single damn thing. I needed a rally. I finally hauled myself out of bed to head over to my friend’s house for The Walking Dead (yes, sadly - only the promise of zombies and Rick Grimes’ badass antics could get me up). I put on the new Florence and the Machine album, Ceremonials, when I got in the car. I had no idea how perfect it would be for that particularly low moment.
Every euphoric description used in conjunction with Florence Welsh’s voice is correct. She’s a force of nature. A human wrecking ball. Her voice is unbelievable, and unearthly. It’s unnerving, and strange in a way that should be alienating, but instead attains this weird beauty. And Ceremonials is excellent.
“Constructive Summer,” by The Hold Steady, contains one of my favorite lines in any song, sold perfectly by Craig Finn: “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.” Florence Welsh embodies that sentiment. Her songs, particularly on this album, often feature the singer battling against her own worst nature. It’s no accident that the album cover features multiple images of the pop diva reflected in mirrors - it’s an album of harsh self-examination. Unlike many of her pop contemporaries, the impact of the songs doesn’t come necessarily from identifying her faults in a self-deprecating way. The more common route is for the struggle against our own worst impulses to create the drama of a song, with the knowledge that there’s beauty in that struggle whether or not the artist succeeds. But her songs, to me, sound like someone who digs deep into herself and simply screams out the demons inside her. Devilish imagery pops up in a few songs on the album, and many of them are practically exorcisms. Her songs are always massive, cathartic explosions of sound where the steamrolling, grandiose instrumentation, under the direction of her impeccable voice, clear the air completely. In every obstacle, Florence finds the capacity to be something bigger.
This album uses a lot of tricks I tend to hate, but deploys them well enough to make me re-think them. I’ve never understood the Joanna Newsom fanatics, and this album is the most compelling case yet that harp can fit into a good pop song (excluding the weirder corners of ’60s psychedelia). It’s only one aspect of the album that should be obnoxious, but just works in an unexpected way. For another example, there’s clearly way too much echo on the production of nearly every song, more than would be acceptable on any other record. But this is an album that swings for the fences with every single song. The emotion she aims for is always the biggest, and most extreme, so any restraint would just seem misguided. In that way, she’s sort of like The Arcade Fire minus every self-indulgent, overly morose aspect of that band’s personality that makes them so irritating to me.
Honestly, that overpowering emotion works against the album. When every song builds to a massive crescendo, with layers of swooping instruments and voices pouring out harmonies on top of each other, it slightly deadens the impact. In other words, a well-sequenced album orders its songs with some rising and falling action - you’d typically follow up a massive, sweeping song with something poppier, or simpler, as a palate cleanser. Here, since every song aims for maximum everything, it sometimes feels like just too much. Essentially any song on the album, taken by itself, would be immensely powerful to listen to, but as a whole it exhausts you over and over.
The other downside to this much hugeness is that it can border on schmaltz. Now, schmaltz is an extremely subjective property. From what I can tell, the only difference between something genuinely emotional and something schmaltzy is whether the emotion on display seems genuine to the listener. Weirdly, people seem also to discount something if it seems overly aggressively to be trying to overwhelm them emotionally. Nevertheless, that lengthy tangent aside, there are songs here that veer into Whitney Houston territory. With worse material, Florence’s voice wouldn’t count for much - she’d be just another pop diva. It’s the fact that she’s found a songwriting style and backing band with such a strong, interesting vision that gives her the perfect showcase for her vocal stylings. Let’s be clear - this is not necessarily a great record. Specifically, the band certainly has a formula of how they construct songs that gets tiresome in the back third of the album. But it has individual moments that will floor you. I’m still trying to decide if those outweigh the problems - it might be an album I revisit more frequently by listening to a song or two than working through the whole thing.
The band’s willingness to stray from the “Dog Days Are Over” formula a few times in this album is always refreshing. The last album gave Florence a chance to try on a harder edge with the excellent, punk-influenced “Kiss With a Fist.” Here, they veer into straight-up horror movie soundtrack with “Seven Devils,” a dirge I can’t say I particularly enjoyed, but certainly respect. Even more successful is “Lover to Lover,” in which I hear a clear ’80s vibe - and unlike all these other current artists drawing from the more respectable music of that decade, this song is boldly derivative of trashier ’80s fare. The best track, one that plays to her strengths, is “Breaking Down.” It’s a hooky song, but the hook is a strange plucked strings arrangement that sounds lifted from a discarded Disney movie. It falls into the formula established throughout the album, finding a couple of killer lines and letting her repeat them over and over, building and improvising with each repetition. By the end, you can’t help but feel elated, even though the song is ostensibly about, as the title suggests, a breakdown. That transformation is why the album was so perfect for me at my low moment. Her voice suggests that there’s something bigger going on, some potential in everybody to create beauty. I don’t know if she’s right in retrospect, but it’s impossible to argue with in the moment when you listen to her.
Motown’s biggest acts are typically defined by their sense of fun, pop craftsmanship, and irresistible catchiness. Berry Gordy’s dogged pursuit of hits meant that the kind of material churned out by the label was always, above all else, radio-ready. While competitor Stax found its footing with artists who sold songs based on a wild, impassioned delivery (Carla Thomas, Otis Redding), Motown, in its pursuit of crossover appeal, tended towards refinement above all else. There are a lot of reasons for this. Motown, of course, was more actively courting a white audience, so the emotional delivery of early R&B or classic blues, as a racially-coded signifier, was something they shied away from. Further, Stax’s sound is always defined by the singer. As good as the Bar-Kays were, they were never able to achieve the complexity of Motown’s orchestral blend of strings, percussion, and horns. Listening to a Motown song now, The Funk Brothers or the songwriters (especially Holland-Dozier-Holland) are as present in the fundamental feeling of the song as the performer.
Consider The Supremes and The Temptations, two of the defining Motown acts. The Temptations simply cannot help but add some infectiousness to the proceedings - “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is, as the title suggests, a song about desperate love, but you’d never know it from the bounciness of the song. Diana Ross was an icon, but had a notoriously thin voice that prevented her from really belting on any of The Supreme’s many number one hits. This isn’t a strike against either band - the songs are still fantastic, and those performers are still rightfully legends. But it’s still notable that Motown tended to shy away from dark or serious subject matter. Marvin Gaye, of course, had “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a tortured story on top of a murky groove, but he had to fight to get that song released as a single, so far was it from the norm of what Berry Gordy expected out of his hit factory.
But have you listened to Four Tops lately? Their defining songs resonate with all of the darkest, saddest, lowest impulses associated with love - jealousy and obsession. Four Tops songs are these bizarre little psychodramas full of desperation. They’re stories about tormented people trying to find some respite in someone else’s love, but with an lingering uncertainty whether that can ever succeed.
Don’t believe me? Listen closely to “It’s The Same Old Song,” one of their most dance-friendly, lasting hits. It’s all about the combination of pain and happiness associated with this unknown woman. “But like a honeybee stings, you’ve gone and left my heart in pain,” sings Levi Stubbs, and we believe him. Without paying attention to the lyrics, the song is a fun, catchy tune, but it’s really about how those kinds of melodies, that “same old song” can be transformed into something more complicated. It’s a reversal of Motown’s typical pop escapism, a song about the way the pure pleasure of the song can become what makes it so heartbreaking once love is gone. No wonder the Coen Brothers chose the song for their dark noir breakthrough, Blood Simple.
“Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is probably their best song. Stubbs pleads a convincing case that when everything in the girl’s life is falling apart, and her life seems chaotic and meaningless, he’ll save her. But the implied relationship behind that idea is one of uncomfortable intimate dependence, one in which the relationship, for better or for worse, is the only source of happiness available to these characters. The haunting, minor key melody, especially that flute riff, lends this song an eerie, even creepy slant. It’s in the same wheelhouse as “Every Breath You Take” - songs where the line between romance and borderline stalker behavior is blurred. What sells it, again, is the delivery. Four Tops have none of that restraint of other groups like The Supremes. Their songs leave everything on the table, and Levi Stubbs always sings like he’s shouting himself hoarse out of pure desperation. There’s a rawness there, though of course that rawness can only go so far given the restraints of Berry Gordy’s vision for Motown. The combination of the company’s pop sensibility and the group’s much grittier sound actually works in favor of the music. The songs are craftsmanlike and polished, with the occasional moment where the singers seem to break through all that. The best of these moments is in “Reach Out” - the powerful yelp the backup singers drop at the beginning of the second verse, a sound of frustration, desire, and passion without words to adequately explain those feelings.
There are plenty more examples: the angry, threatening drum breakdown in “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” the ebb and flow of “I’ll Turn To Stone,” or their outstanding cover of an already sad song, “Walk Away Renee.” But to really hear the way this band accesses the dark side of romantic love, you need look no further than their 1967 hit “Bernadette,” a paranoid fantasy where every other man is little better than a false friend hoping to steal away the singer’s love. As the song goes on, and that man’s obsession with his woman becomes increasingly passionate, it’s clear, to my ear at least, that his fears of another man stealing her away are groundless, based instead on his inability to cope with the idea of life with out her. “The only joy in life is to be loved,” they sing, as if nothing else in the world matters. The song reaches a stunning climax when, just as the song appears to fade into nothingness, Stubbs screams “Bernadette!” one last time and that propulsive beat kicks back in. It’s breathtaking.
The problem with Four Tops is that the demands of being a performer (particularly a black performer, particularly a soul performer, particularly a Motown performer) were at odds with what they did best. The group put together these remarkably sophisticated songs that, while catchy, explore some of man’s darker impulses. It’s a testament to how solid the songs are that Motown released them anyway, and the group became starts despite dabbling in territory the label would typically shy away from. But getting those songs out wasn’t enough - a Motown artist had to tour, and had to tour according to the program. What you end up with are these bizarre performances where the emotionalism of the song is put into stark contrast with an onstage persona wherein the group is required to be charming, stylist, and fleet-footed. This performance of “I Can’t Help Myself” is fairly typical. The group appears in matching outfits (like The Temptations) and performs highly practiced, fairly silly dance moves (like The Temptations), simply because that’s what’s expected of them, not because it fits the music particularly well.
I’m not suggesting they were necessarily forced into this kind of performance explicitly - it’s more that the culture of the time demanded the performers to act the part of charming heartthrobs when they appeared on TV. The dramatic climax of “Bernadette” is nearly ruined live, when accompanied by broad, trained smiles and dancing. In that performance, you can see Stubbs trying to sell the song, and actually portraying the desperation of the words, but his face alone can’t undo the stagy cheesiness around him. Four Tops were a group that always reached for near-operatic emotions in an era where they needed to fit into the teen idol mode. Their TV version of “It’s the Same Old Song” comes closest to presenting them more accurately. They’re dressed, fittingly for the song, just like four guys out for a night on the town, surrounded by dancing shadows. Despite the ludicrous dance break, Stubbs shows us that he understands the song, feels the heartbreak at the center of it. This was a group that told adult stories of unrequited desire, dangerous, obsessive love, and outright paranoia. The problem was, they had to try to market that to teenagers.
Mayer Hawthorne’s debut album, A Strange Arrangement, was derivative beyond all reason and a pretty fun record at the same time. Literally every track has a clear influence from some specific corner of classic soul music, presenting his take on, for instance, a Marvin Gaye, Temptations, or doo-wop-style song. Beyond just the vocal delivery, these songs paid homage to his idols to a ridiculously specific degree. “The Ills” doesn’t just sound like Curtis Mayfield’s singing it - the song uses the same combination of brass and hand percussion found in Mayfield tracks like “Move On Up,” and takes a stab at socio-political commentary. It’s an attempt to not just recreate Mayfield’s sound, but inhabit his entire persona.
It’s a pretty good song, but what stops it from being a great song, and what threatens to derail much of A Strange Arrangement, is that it lacks a distinctive voice. Mayer Hawthorne will never be Curtis Mayfield, and the more he tries to be, the more vague his own persona is. “The Ills” doesn’t have the punch of Mayfield’s lyrics, because Hawthorne isn’t so much tackling these heavier issues as he is imitating how Mayfield’s work tackled them. Every individual track on that album is catchy, but as a whole, he so enthusiastically embraces the ghosts of soul past that it’s unclear what he has to say. When you change personality so frequently over the course of one brief album, none of them ring particularly true. The only thing we can say for certain about Hawthorne by the end is that he shows a genuine love and reverence for Motown and that era of music - he’s a fanboy with the means and ability to come as close as possible to re-living that era. It’s a well-produced, fun piece of pop nostalgia without taking that one step towards adding some sort of modern spin on those old ideas.
Hawthorne’s second album, How Do You Do (out this week), is more focused, narrowing down from his hodgepodge of influences in a way that allows him to reveal more of his own personality. It’s still undeniably retro, but in a more sophisticated way. He actually comments on the past, updates it, and makes the nostalgic songwriting style part of the story.
If A Strange Arrangement was a love letter to Motown, How Do You Do moves more towards 70’s fusion, jazz-rock, and the genre now vaguely defined as “Yacht Rock.” Maybe spending time with Daryl Hall was a formative experience (Side Note - How cool is it that Daryl Hall just invites musicians to his amazing house and puts their jam sessions online for free? As if I couldn’t love Hall and Oates more). At times there’s a definite Steely Dan vibe, although the old horn hits and unapologetic romanticism of his past work is still in the mix. The real leap forward, though, is in the way he connects with that past. If the earlier album could be accused of trying to pretend it was still the sixties, the new album deals with the legacy of that time period. The first single, “A Long Time,” is all about the juxtaposition between Detroit in its heyday and the current mess its in. He deals with the flipside of nostalgia, wondering what went wrong. Instead of just going to Motown fantasy camp, he’s now dealing with the legacy of that time he feels such a connection to, and asks the question of what that history means in today’s world.
As in the case of the previous album, songs like this, dealing with more serious issues, aren’t the strength of the album. Hawthorne clearly feels most at home writing swooning, romantic odes or pissed-off kiss-off jams. He has a more natural touch with those kinds of songs, and more of a sense of humor. “Finally Falling” creates a charming portrait of a playboy settling down, while “You Called Me” drops some very funny lines about a particularly bad day made better when he hears from a lady friend. These relationship-centric tunes are a lot more modern-feeling, too. Motown tended to deal in the the extremes of love: head-of-heels smitten or devastated and heartbroken. Hawthorne’s got the complexities of modern romance down, particularly in “The Walk,” where he’s torn between love and hate. He gets a lot of mileage out of throwing out more colorful language than The Temptations were allowed to, knowing the audience will be tickled by the slightly rougher-edged lyrics on the traditionally dignified Motown template. The video is pretty bizarre.
“The Walk” also highlights one of the most fascinating aspects of Hawthorne’s work, which is its debt to hip hop. In interviews, he discusses how he grew up listening to his dad’s Motown records, but he, like his peers, was obsessed with hip hop. The interesting thing to think about is how Hawthorne’s artistic input is the natural end result of the way rap producers have appropriated, sampled, stolen and rewritten bits and pieces of classic soul over the years. The core of hip hop is its funky beats, often swiped from obscure soul 45s. The practice essentially involves taking an old sample and cranking up the bass and drums to give it that tougher feel. When you listen to “The Walk,” you can hear that influence. The bass and drums are far more prominent in the mix, far more important to how the song moves, than in classic soul. Even on his more wholeheartedly retro debut, Mayer Hawthorne never truly recreated the sound of past eras with the dedication of other retro-soul artists like Daptone Records (who go so far as to use actual analog recording equipment from that time period). His soul sounds, in many ways, like soul as heard through hip hop. Even the weakest songs on the album have some killer hook that sounds like it was practically written to be sampled.
It’s an impressive album, one that somehow makes songs about failed relationships, nightmares, or the uncertain future all unquestionably fun. Much as years of appreciating classics like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” have depreciated the darkness of that song, Hawthorne’s Motown is seen through rose-colored glasses. When a song becomes a golden oldie, the nostalgic love for the era the song evokes comes to outclass the actual emotional content. I smile when I hear “Where Did Our Love Go?” even though it’s a sad song by any measure. Hawthorne’s soul, similarly, is joyous to a fault. He can’t help but let his enthusiasm take over the proceedings. With this second album, though, he gives a more nuanced view of who he is. He still gets to pretend he’s part of Holland-Dozier-Holland, but he’ll acknowledge that some aspects of America have changed so irrevocably since the sixties that we have no choice but to reconsider that music in light of what followed.