Saturday, March 19, 2016

Top 20 Songs of 2015: Part 1

Finally, I get to publish my Top 20 Songs of 2015. I put a lot of thought and listening hours into this list. It's not perfect, but it's mine.


20. Three Days Grace -- "I Am Machine"

This Canadian band reminds me of Bad Religion for some reason. I love the vocals on this song -- their power matches the power of the theme. It makes me think about the character of Murphy in Robocop, but you could go with Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Vision in The Avengers, or pretty much any A.I. character who wishes he or she was human. Of course, I think the writers wanted it to be about how all of us are losing our humanity, and that's fine too.


19. The Decemberists -- "Till the Water's All Long Gone"

This is the first of two songs from The Decemberist's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World to make this list, which is kind of weird because I felt kind of meh about the album as a whole. This song is beautiful, though, slow and haunting. It's sung by a character whose time has passed him by -- his beloved daughter is long dead, some distant ancestors have come down from the mountains, but he's protecting his water even if he can't quite remember who he's protecting it for. The song has nothing to do with this, but for some reason, it makes me think of the Bikura episode in Dan Simmons' Hyperion novel. I think it's because both the singer and the people coming down from the mountains remind me of the Bikura in their dimness.


18. Florence + The Machine -- "Ship to Wreck"

Florence + The Machine is a weird band for me. On each of their albums, including this one, I find I'm not impressed with most of the songs, but there are always one or two that I really like a lot. This song is the band at their best. It has a strong hook, the lyrics have strong imagery, and it all goes perfectly with one of Florence Welch's best vocals. Sometimes (too often, actually) this band gets into a bluesy thing that I don't care for, but this number is straight-ahead driving rock.


17. Melanie Martinez -- "Pacify Her"

Cry Baby, the LP on which this song appears, is a concept album.  The CD is done up as a kind of demented children's book. This particular song is pretty laid back -- slow, and a little dreamy. It's not the first song I noticed when I heard the CD, but it's the one that grew on me the most. Thematically, it's the reverse of Paramore's "Misery Business" -- this time, we're getting the point of view of the manstealer. "Tired, blue boy walks my way/Holding a girl's hand/That basic bitch leaves finally/Now I can steal her man." There's a wicked sense of humor here, and no repentance whatsoever, which makes it even funnier.


16. Coldplay -- "Everglow"

This is a slow, kind of sad ballad. It features a soulful vocal by Chris Martin, and some really exquisite Bruce-Hornsbylike piano work. It might be a little schmaltzy, but I can deal with that because it's so damned beautiful. And apparently Martin's ex, Gwyneth Paltrow, does an uncredited guest vocal. What's in the box, Chris?! Oh, what's in the f!-@ing box?!!!


15. Coin -- "Run"

Coin is a poppy alternative band from Nashville. This song is from their eponymous debut CD. The song is a delightful, upbeat indiepop number. It's a little like this -- imagine you took Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up", sped it up, and added jangly guitars, some synth on the transitions, and some clean alt-rock vocals. That's what it's like. A little. Sort of.


14. Holly Miranda -- "Desert Call"

Holly Miranda is a singer-songwriter from Detroit. "Desert Call" is from her self-titled debut album. This is another slow, dreamy number, with vocals that are alternately breathy and belty. (I'm pretty sure I just made that word up.) There's some stark guitar in the beginning, and later on some gentle sax to carry the song home. And since she grew up singing in a church, there are some easy "halleljuhs" at the end that I'm pretty sure have more to do with world of the flesh stuff than with ecstasies of the spirit.


13. Virgin Steele -- "Hymns to Damnation"

Although Virgin Steele is a metal band, and there's plenty of fast-paced rock on the two-disc album from which this song comes, "Hymns to Damnation" is a ballad. It's a psychotic ballad, but it's a ballad. And you've never heard such a loving tribute to death, deceit and damnation, lovingly growled by lead singer David DeFeis. ("Child heart with bestial eyes/Like tears in spider webs, a perfect disguise ...") Demons rock!


12. Night Riots -- "Break"

Night Riots is a California band that has been compared to The Killers.  This track is from their Howl EP. The song is a strong alt-rock single, although strangely it wasn't released as a single. Go figure.  It's a medium-paced song with a positive message "They will try, but they will never break what you are/There is us, we are one/As the whole world falls apart." It's catchy. You'll like it. (Actually, I have no idea if you'll like it, but I like it, so that's why it's here.)


11. Hey Violet - "You Don't Love Me Like You Should"

Hey Violet is a mostly-grrl pop punk band from Los Angeles in the tradition of The Go-Gos. Apparently they used to be an all-grrl band called Cherri Bomb, but stuff happens.  The music is fast-paced and fun, even when the lyrics are about sad stuff (like when your significant other doesn't love you like they should). They've got a full-length CD coming out later this year, but this song is from last year's I Can Feel It EP.  I've never seen them live, but I bet they're a pisser.


Next Post: Top 20 Songs of 2015: Part 2

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Top 10 Local Albums of 2015

I'm a Long Island guy who grew up in Queens. I used to do a radio show highlighting "local" music, and a couple of public access TV shows as well.

When I talk local music, I try to keep a fairly loose definition of the word "local". For the purposes of picking a Top 10 Local Albums list, here's what I consider "local": 1. Long Island, for sure; 2. The 5 boroughs of NY (especially Brooklyn, where a lot of Long Island bands have run off to) 3. Sometimes Jersey or a little ways upstate, if the mood takes me. (I'm not giving away money or anything, so I kind of get to make up the rules as I go along). Also, if a band or artist spent a decent amount of time living on and playing on Long Island, they get to qualify, even if they've moved to another area of the country.

As for format of what constitutes an "album" I'm going by the same rules I used on my The Top 10 Albums of 2015 list --there  has to be a hard (CD copy) of the album, and it has to full-length; No EPs. allowed.

Because there's not much suspense about the top 3 slots (Since Tang, Elle King and Matt and Kim all made the national list), we're going to print this list from top to bottom.

Top 10 Local Albums of 2015

1. Tang -- Blood & Sand

Holy Guacamole! A local Long Island band takes the #1 slot for 2015! They describe themselves as a "dual female fronted alternative metal power trio". They've done some good stuff in the past, but this by far the best complete album they've ever put together. They're a way heavier band than I usually go for, but this was my number one album this year from the moment I first heard it, and nothing was able to dethrone it for the rest of the year. The whole album is first-rate, but the apocalyptic "The 11th Hour" is the standout. (So for all the happy, upbeat albums in the first part of the list, the darkness wins out after all. Yay darkness!)


2. Matt and Kim -- New Glow

Yet another great band (duo, actually) that lives in Brooklyn, these guys make music that's just kind of goofy and fun. When I first heard them, it seemed to me as if Beavis and Butthead had formed their own band. Then I found out that Kim was a girl, and I felt kind of bad about thinking that. Anyway, what is it with me and happy, fun bands these days? Usually I gravitate towards much darker stuff. (Well, wait until we reach my Top 20 Singles of 2015 list). As a New Yorker, I particularly love "Can You Blame Me" which has some great lyrics like "Climbing the Manhattan Bridge/Give the finger to our city with a kiss". These guys get it.


3. Elle King -- Love Stuff

Elle King is one of a ridiculous number of talented artists living in Brooklyn these days. Her music mixes rock, country and maybe a little blues. Love Stuff is her debut album, and it's a strong one. A lot of the songs on this CD feature her playing the bad girl -- drinking, breaking guys' hearts, tempting Satan, etc. "Ex's and Oh's" is the one everyone knows, if not from the rock charts or the alternative charts, then surely from one of several television commercials that make use of the song. My personal favorite is "America's Sweetheart", where she gets to do the bad girl thing to the hilt -- "Well they say I'm too loud for this town/So I lit a match and burned it down."


4. Jeff Rosenstock -- We Cool?

Actually, I hated this album the first time I heard it. There's a lot of feedback and cacophony going on. But on second listen, I realized there's also some first-rate song writing on this CD. Rosenstock has been involved in a number of previous projects, including the ska-punk band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and a music collective called Bomb the Music Industry. The best songs here include a number called "Nausea", which includes a description of a great deal of substance abuse, and "I'm Serious, I'm Sorry" which also contains some excessive alcohol consumption, but is the song with the biggest heart on the album.


5. Jeremy Gilchrist -- Causality

I'm cheating just a little bit with this one, because it was actually released in the last two weeks of 2014, but tough. Jeremy Gilchrist is a former Long Islander who has since moved on, first to North Carolina and then to snowy Vermont (which is appropriate, since Jeremy is almost as well known for his love of extreme weather as for his love of music). This is his best album to date, which is saying something. The most powerful song is a slow number called "Letter from the 21st", which is a musical love letter to the 22nd century, full of hope, but also filled with regret for things we won't be leaving them. Also particularly strong is the last song, "Great Escape", which features the heaviest dose of Gilchrist's unique musicality, especially his half-laughing, half-maniacal vocals.


6. Melanie Martinez -- Cry Baby

Martinez is a Manhattan resident who competed on Season 3 of the television show The Voice. Cry Baby, her first full-length CD, is a concept album done in the style of a very adult and disturbing children's book. There are themes of family trauma, rape, childhood bullying, and others guaranteed to keep you up at night. The big single was "Pity Party" which borrows heavily from "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To," but twists it into something a little more desperate. My favorite track is Pacify Her", a subtle number that is sort of the bizarro world version of Paramore's "Misery Business", told from the viewpoint of the boyfriend stealer with not a whole lot of sympathy for the victim. ("I can't take her whining/Where's her binky now?") The music is well thought out and heavily produced throughout.


7. Blackmore's Night -- All Our Yesterdays

All Our Yesterdays is Blackmore's Night's 10th studio album. I actually don't think it's one of their strongest, but it says something that even an album that's not one of their best still makes my local Top 10. The title track is classic Blackmore's Night, featuring yet another crystal clear and beautiful vocal by Candice Night. There's also some particularly tasty instrumental work from rock legend Richie Blackmore and his band here, especially on "Allan yn n fan". It blows me away that we have a band this strong on Long Island that has such a virulent following in places like Germany, but they've mainly only got a cult following here. Get with the program, Long Islanders!


8. Sufjan Stephens -- Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stephens is a Brooklyn resident with a distinguished musical career over the last few decades. This a bittersweet concept album with songs written mostly about his relationship with his mother who suffered throughout her life with mental illness and substance abuse, and his stepfather Lowell Brams, who later became the head of his record label. It's described on Wikipedia as "sparsely instrumental", and I'd say that's an accurate assessment. The best number is called "Fourth of July", an intensely beautiful song that recounts a conversation between  Stephens and his mother while she was in the hospital dying of stomach cancer. If you're looking for party music, this ain't it. But if you want something subtle, sorrowful and poetic, this is a highly worthwhile album.


9. Torres - Sprinter

Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) is a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter. Sprinter is her second full-length CD. She opened for Garbage earlier this year at The Space in Westbury, and I'm bummed I missed it because I really like this album. I particularly like the song "New Skin", told first from the viewpoint of her as a baby trying to make sense of her baptism, and later of her as the young woman she is today. I'm also particularly impressed by a long, sparse number called "The Exchange". It tells the story of her loss of her own history; her mother was an adoptee whose birth records were lost in a church flood. The album as a whole is kind of stark, which of course, is one of the things I like best about it.


10. Virgin Steele -- Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation

As Monty Python would say, "And now for something completely different." With the exception of the Tang album at the top of the list, most of my Top 10 Local CDs list has been dominated by quiet, subtle or acoustic music. Virgin Steele  is a heavy metal band of Long Island origin, in the tradition thematically (if not quite sonically) of European epic metal. Nocturnes of Hellfire and Damnation is a 2-disc concept album filled with demons, devils, witches, etc., and what could be wrong with that? There are a number of strong songs on both the main disc and the bonus disc. My particular favorite is "Hymns to Damnation", which is sort of a slow, pretty demonic ballad celebrating damnation and disease. I also love "Persephone" which a more typical, driving number.


Thanks to anyone who takes the time to read this list. Again, my hope is maybe I'll turn you on to an album or artist you were previously unfamiliar with, and it will make your 2016 a happier year.

Next Post: The Top 20 Songs of 2015

Friday, March 4, 2016

Top 10 Albums of 2015

This list has been ready for at least a week and a half, but this is the first chance I've had to post it.

Here are the rules for what is eligible: It has to be a full-length album of at least 7 songs (unless you've got one or more epic-length songs). No EPs. It also has to be all by one artist -- no compilations. And although I know one of these days I'll have to change this, I'm still old school, so I have to have a physical copy of the album on CD. I won't count it if I can only get a digital version.

In 2015, I listened to 70+ albums to put together this list. I tried to include a variety of genres, but my tastes are what they are -- I like classical, but no classical albums were included. I don't much like pure hip-hop or jazz, so none of those albums were included. I didn't include any straight country, although some of the artists produced country-tinged rock. And of course, it's all based on my taste. It's all about what I liked, and what I thought was good.

So from 10th through first, here's my list:

Top 10 Albums of 2015:

10. Coldplay -- A Head Full of Dreams

This was the last album I reviewed for the year, but it made my Top 10. Actually, after being disappointed by Mylo Xyloto in 2011, I've liked their last two albums a lot. For me, these guys carry on the banner of Pink Floyd (although they're obviously much less psychedelic), so it's no wonder they're one the most successful bands in the world today. For me, the standout cut is the slow ballad "Everglow" which features some lovely piano that reminds me of Bruce Hornsby.


9. Meg Myers -- Sorry

This is the first full-length album for this West Coast artist who was born in Tennessee. The genre is rock-pop with some bite to it. Her first single, "Desire", is also my favorite song on the album.  There's a kind of an animal longing to it, and also a fair amount of pissed-offishness, as she almost spits out "How do you want me/How do you want me?" I'd never heard of her before, and I don't even remember what made me try out the album, but I'm really glad I did.


8. Zedd -- True Colors

One of the top electro artists out today, I first became aware of him when he collaborated with Paramore's Hayley Williams on "Stay the Night". That song isn't on this album, but a whole bunch of other collaborations are, most of whom I either hadn't heard of or never thought I'd like (Selena Gomez sings one of the songs on this album, and it's actually pretty good). Some of the critics thought it wasn't as good as his first album, Clarity, but screw 'em. My favorite song is the first one on the album, "Addicted to a Memory", which features a strong vocal from an all-female Manhattan Beach band called Bahari. The song also has all kind of weird, swirling electronic things going on that I really liked.


7. The Mowglis -- Kids in Love

The Mowglis are a Southern California alt-pop band that just reek of wholesomeness and fun. Normally this makes me run for the hills, but it works for them. The music is a lot more modern and full, but for some reason something about them makes me think of The Cowsills. The band has both male and female vocalists, and there's a very upbeat vibe throughout the CD. The title track is my favorite, and it's about exactly what you'd think -- "Kids in Love." It has an infectious upbeat groove to it.


6. Passion Pit -- Kindred

Passion Pit is described by Wikipedia as an "indietronica band", although to my ears they're more "indie" than "tronica", and they're not so much a band as they are the musical project of one man, the falsetto-voiced Michael Angelakos. I've liked all three of Passion Pit's albums to date, and while there's nothing on this one quite as weird and out there (in a good way) as the song "Sleepyhead" from the first album Manners (which sounded like it was sung by Oz's Munchkins on acid), this new album is full of good stuff. "Where the Sky Hangs" is the one I like best. It's a dreamy little number that has a video featuring a strangely beautiful but disturbing-looking boy and girl lying side by side in the grass, holding hands and blinking a lot. Go figure.


5. Elle King -- Love Stuff

Elle King is one of a ridiculous number of talented artists living in Brooklyn these days. Her music mixes rock, country and maybe a little blues. Love Stuff is her debut album, and it's a strong one. A lot of the songs on this CD feature her playing the bad girl -- drinking, breaking guys' hearts, tempting Satan, etc. "Ex's and Oh's" is the one everyone knows, if not from the rock charts or the alternative charts, then surely from one of several television commercials that make use of the song. My personal favorite is "America's Sweetheart", where she gets to do the bad girl thing to the hilt -- "Well they say I'm too loud for this town/So I lit a match and burned it down."


4. Matt and Kim -- New Glow

Yet another great band (duo, actually) that lives in Brooklyn, these guys make music that's just kind of goofy and fun. When I first heard them, it seemed to me as if Beavis and Butthead had formed their own band. Then I found out that Kim was a girl, and I felt kind of bad about thinking that. Anyway, what is it with me and happy, fun bands these days? Usually I gravitate towards much darker stuff. (Well, wait until we reach my Top 20 Singles of 2015 list). As a New Yorker, I particularly love "Can You Blame Me" which has some great lyrics like "Climbing the Manhattan Bridge/Give the finger to our city with a kiss". These guys get it.


3. Three Days Grace -- Human

Three Days Grace is a Toronto-based band that I was originally turned on to by my son.  Even though they're more heavy rock than punk, especially on this album, something about them reminds me of Bad Religion. The band has a new lead vocalist for this album, Barry Wolst, and although it didn't chart as well as some of their previous stuff, I think he's better than their previous singer. He's got a powerful but pleasing voice. The standout song for me is "I Am Machine" which sort of feels to me like it's being sung by the character of Murphy from Robocop.


2. Priory -- Need to Know

I'm kind of cheating with this album, because I'm pretty sure the digital download was available late in 2014. But I couldn't get an actual CD until sometime in 2015, so it counts. (Maybe it was only the single that was available digitally?) I saw them about a year and a half ago opening for The Kooks at the Paramount in Huntington, and I was on the hunt for the album ever since. I actually thought these guys were from somewhere in the UK, maybe Scotland or Wales, but it turns out they're from Portland, OR. Wikipedia describes them as electropop. OK. I'd just go with alternative. Anyway, it's a strong album, front to back, and the single "Weekend" is particularly tasty.


1. Tang -- Blood & Sand

Holy Guacamole! A local Long Island band takes the #1 slot for 2015! They describe themselves as a "dual female fronted alternative metal power trio". They've done some good stuff in the past, but this by far the best complete album they've ever put together. They're a way heavier band than I usually go for, but this was my number one album this year from the moment I first heard it, and nothing was able to dethrone it for the rest of the year. The whole album is first-rate, but the apocalyptic "The 11th Hour" is the standout. (So for all the happy, upbeat albums in the first part of the list, the darkness wins out after all. Yay darkness!)


So that wraps up my Top 10 Albums of 2015. I hope maybe some of you get turned on to someone great you never heard before. All I can tell you is the list was lovingly, yet painstakingly, put together.

Next Post: The Top 10 Local Albums of 2015.