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Entries in Music (24)

Friday
Dec262014

2014 Year in Review: St. Vincent, Album of the Year

Around the time of last year's Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Annie Clark joining Nirvana on stage to perform "Lithium" it occurred to me that she is the coolest person in music today.

Since Clark's band, St. Vincent, came on the scene with their phenomenal 2007 debut album Marry Me she has cultivated the perfect mixture or accessibility, experimentation, and persona.

While Clark continues to write and compose all of St. Vincent's songs herself, she has gradually backed off with some of the recording responsibilities.  On Marry Me, Clark recorded nearly everything you hear on the album herself; from the vocals to piano to percussion to the dulcimer.  On 2014's St. Vincent, Clark is satisfied merely with recording the vocals and guitars leaving everything else to guest and studio musicians while she focuses on the bigger picture.

It is unlikely anyone would call any of St. Vincent's albums timid in their ambitiousness but with this year's self-titled St. Vincent there is a confidence that seemingly was not there before.  She allows things breathe and take shape more organically.  Perhaps it was Clark's 2012 collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne or just the gradual progression of her artistry, either way the result is a beautiful adventurous sound with just enough familiarity to appeal to mainstream.

The electronic crunch of the opening track "Rattlesnake" clashes perfectly with the desolate desert imagery of the lyrics.  The urgency of Clark's voice gives way to an explosion in the following track, "Birth in Reverse" signalling the crisp guitar/synth sound that most of the album is styled with.

I hesitate to use the word "balance" when describing St. Vincent because it implies even distribution.  St. Vincent's individual parts exists mostly in chaos.  Clark's brilliance is her ability to temper that chaos with just the right amount of order - a smooth vocal melody here, a well timed guitar breakdown there - and then have it all come together for a masterful flourish of sound.  The soft crooning of "Prince Johnny" melting into the electronic methodology in "Huey Newton".  

Technology is a recurring theme of St. Vincent, techno-esque guitars and robotic sounding vocals clashing up against lyrics that call for human connection in a digital age.

This is best encapsulated in "Digital Witness", a bombastic song heavy with brass instruments in the verses and synth in the refrain.  The song also shows off Clark's best talent: taking a song trying to go a million different ways at once, forcing it onto a one way-track and fueling it with a great hook.

There is something distinctly more joyous in St. Vincent that was absent from the band's previous albums.  Clark herself described the album as reflecting a much more "extroverted" emotional state when she wrote and recorded it.  A track like "I Prefer You Love", which Clark wrote when her mother briefly fell ill, might have been a introspective melancholy song if it had appeared on Strange Mercy (2011) or Actor (2009). But on St. Vincent it is a celebration.

The final track of the album, "Severed Crossed Fingers" is the most emotional on the album, and my favorite.  The lyrics of the song speak to the quiet and incredible ability people possess to create hope even when trapped in an utterly hopeless situation.  The soaring, swelling emotion heard in Clark's voice matched with the meticulous ticking of the beat creates a build that gives listeners the very best of what St. Vincent has to offer at the very last chorus.  Clark said of recording the song, "I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done."

Wednesday
Dec242014

2014 Year in Review: Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, Future Islands, and What Wasn't the Album of the Year?

 

A lot happened in music in 2014.  Right?  What?  Huh?  You know something I learned in 2014 about music?  It's really hard to keep up with music these days.  I pride myself on following music and I didn't even know who Sia was until about three months ago.  Think you did better?  Just look at Stereogum's Top 50 Albums of 2014 or Pitchfork's Top 100 Songs... recognize them?  Recognize half of them?  Then you're doing pretty good in my book.

Even with my limited knowledge, I was able to catch some of the bigger happenings in music this year.

- Taylor Swift continued her steel fisted reign over the American music world, holding record sales hostage until she was damn good and ready to release her album in October.  She dented her legacy slightly when she thought she was worthy of representing New York City (Bodegas are NOT your friend, Taylor).

- War on Drugs had a kind of sort of fued with Sun Kil Moon singer Mark Kozelek, that was really mostly just Kozelek hurling insults while War on Drugs mostly ignored him.  How did it end?  With Kozelek releasing a song called "War on Drugs Suck My Cock" and War on Drugs having on of the best albums of the year, "Lost in a Dream." (Kozelek's own album, "Benji" wasn't bad either).

- Charli XCX and Kitten both finally released LPs this year that didn't quite live up to their previous singles and smaller ventures.

- Run the Jewels (Rap duo and partners in name puns: Killer Mike and El-P) put out two albums but it was the second, "Run the Jewels 2", a nitroglycerin doused, subversive, anthem that launched the group from America's radio into the country's social consciousness.

- U2 gave people a pretty good album for free, and everyone bitched about it.  (Rolling Stone's Album of the Year).

- Weezer made yet another comeback album, but this time it was something worth coming back for.

- Ryan Adams double dipped this year producing one of the best albums of the year in Jenny Lewis' "The Voyager" and releasing one of his own that was even better.

- Mac Demarco is a guy who exists that I guess you should start listening to.

- Against Me! released their first album since their lead singer's highly publicized sex change operation.  The aptly titled, "Gender Dysphoria Blues" landed in many Top 20 Albums lists.


- Future Islands head bobbed their way from Letterman into the mainstream and released what I am going to call the SECOND BEST Album of the Year.

Sunday
Nov162014

Who are the Top 5 All-Time NYC Rock Bands?

Everyone already knows New York City is responsible for producing a lot of fantastic things.

Pizza.

Liberty.

Brooklyn Lager.

The list goes on.  Of course, music has always been entrenched in NYC culture.  Jay-Z, Miles Davis, Simon and Garfunkel are all products of the greatest city in the world.  But what about rock n' roll?  And no, I don't mean Steely Dan.  I mean actual distortion loving, frontman wailing rock bands.  Well NYC has those too.  And Rated Wrong is now going to take some time out of its precious Sunday football watching time to inform you on the 5 greatest rock bands to call NYC home.

*Criteria Key:

- Quality

- Influence

- New York City-ness

- Level of fame

- Musicianship

Honorable Mention

Kiss

The ultimate salesmen of rock n' roll, Kiss are the Walt Disney of music (and Gene Simmons is Mickey Mouse).  All of your senses will be bombarded and everything is for sale.  If this was a list of the most recognizable NYC bands, they'd have a strong argument for #1, but ultimately, Kiss don't measure up in musicianship, influence or the hits to make the top five.  Their greatest song about New York, "New York Groove", isn't even a Kiss song (It was on Ace Freely's solo album).

#5


Talking Heads

The late 70s into the early 80s were dark times for rock n' roll.  Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Huey Lewis and the News made up the very pinnacle of rock.  Fine bands all, but anytime you say "Fleetwood Mac is the biggest rock band on the planet"  that's a bad day.  While the nation was suffering, however, the New York City rock scene was flourishing.  Talking Heads was a band that didn't have much national fame, but their quality would endure for years to come and their influence remains strong in rock music today for bands looking to the push the artistic envelope.  Also, bonus points for trailblazing the "woman bass player" look.

#4

LCD Soundsystem


The only band on this list that wasn't around when Richard Nixon was president and without question the greatest band to come out of The Big Apple in the last 25 years.  Strictly speaking, LCD Soundsystem's classification as a rock band is a little tricky.  Truthfully, classifying LCD's rock/electronic fusion sound at all is pretty tough, but the power on tracks like "North American Scum" and "Give it Up" is undeniable.  Combine their impressive catalogue with that groundbreaking musical style and you end up with James Murphy's brain child being the #4 all-time NYC rock band.

#3


New York Dolls

Robert Christgau's all-time favorite band.  The New York Dolls helped usher in the era of punk in New York with their searing 1973 self-titled debut album and rough, wild attitude.  A feat so greatly influential to rock music that they can be forgiven for also being a primary cause to the rise of glam rock.  Heavily influencing the likes of The Ramones, Kiss, Ryan Adams, and Guns n' Roses, the New York Dolls are not only one of the top five New York City bands ever they may also be one of the most all-time influential rock bands anywhere.

#2


The Ramones

The students have become the masters.  No one would ever call the Ramones talented musicians or nuanced song writers.  What they were:  4 guys from NYC with loud guitars, catchy lyrics, and the ability to play their instruments very very fast.  The Ramones perfected a look and sound that would come to define punk rock for decades.  Playing songs that might have been pop hits if they slowed down and weren't about Nazis and the Klan.

#1


The Velvet Underground

Was there ever any doubt?  Between John Cale's musicianship and every single thing about Lou Reed no one was ever going to challenge The Velvet Undergound's place atop the mountain.  Although they never achieved wide reaching fame while together they made their mark on music, influencing a multitude of artists and coming to define the detached, cool attitude that is the very spirit of New York City.  During an era of incredible musical experimentation, no one else sounded like the Velvet Underground.  The Velvet Underground have been often been described as being ahead of their time, but this is incorrect, the Velvet Underground changed the future of rock music.