Skip to content
May 29, 2015 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

April 16, 2015 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

How to Fix Van Halen

VanHalen_OnKimmel_
Perhaps you saw Van Halen on your TV recently gracing the stage at Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Ellen Show, fronted by a gum-chomping, ink-covered old singer and just shook your head. More likely, you clicked a link to watch one of the appearances online after the fact and maybe X’d out of it in disappointment at how The Mighty Van Halen has fallen.

What’s wrong with Van Halen in 2015? Well, first off, they seem to not have a promotional/PR team (or social media presence). In fact, a random slip-up by a Canadian DJ, followed by tireless “internet research” by members of the VHLinks message board, followed by “confirmation” from Billboard and Rolling Stone (citing sources that sited “internet chatter”) is how word of their upcoming live album first leaked (confirmed by the band a month later with those TV appearances).

That brings us to what else is wrong with Van Halen in 2015: they are just now finally releasing their first live album with iconic front man David Lee Roth and it’s a 2013 show (with no BluRay/DVD companion). Still no classic shows from the vaults.

So the problem with Van Halen isn’t just that they are old, although they are that. But old age has treated the Bruce Springsteens and Paul McCartneys of the world just fine. Van Halen has fallen down the next step: they’ve made themselves irrelevant. Since their heyday(s) with both Roth and his successor Sammy Hagar, they’ve brought both back for reunion tours of varying success and mostly wallowed in inactivity, save for the 2012 studio album they made with Roth (with Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass).

But while other rock bands (from Van Halen contemporaries like Rush to disciples like Pearl Jam) have almost all released live DVDs from tours old and new, along with remasters with bonus tracks, Van Halen has been curiously silent and their remasters offer no previously unreleased material. Time to change that. Time to restore the greatest American rock band back atop the throne of stardom and glory. Time to fix Van Halen.  Read more…

April 9, 2015 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

The Anniversary Re-Issue of My Top 10 List

Working in a record store back in 1987, we got the first Beatles CDs shipped to us and excitedly opened the boxes after hours as they would go on sale the next day to coincide with the 20 anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. Obviously I understood the leap to the new format, but was a little surprised at the hype of this “new” release that was really just a reselling of old music everyone already had.

And in true Beatles fashion, of course they predicted all of this and put it on record. In fact the first line of that legendary Sgt. Pepper album is “It was 20 years ago today…” and a tagline was born. The Beatles making it to compact discs in the late 80s wasn’t the first or last “anniversary reissue” but it rang in a new era of nostalgia culture along with what the Box Set craze was doing for what was once known as “The Record Industry.”

As our media and culture and news cycles continued to speed up as technology advanced, so too did our nostalgia rates. The 1990s saw a resurgence (recycling) of the 1960s…. and soon enough we couldn’t wait to re-celebrate the 70s and shout I LOVE THE 80s and by the dawn of the 21st century it seemed we were already “looking back” on a 90s decade that just ended. This hyperwarp eventually ate itself and now we just spend each day, week, and year looking back at the great things that already happened 10, 20, and 25 years ago.

Usually we are nudged into this by some not-so-coincidental reissues… anniversary edition remasters of the classic albums we already know and love. And in the digital age where selling any music, especially hard copy CDs, is next to impossible, it’s a lot easier to (re)sell us stuff everyone knows is good (especially with added goodies and updated artwork or notes). It’s easy to have a hit with a hit.

In the “rock is dead” era, we didn’t need the Strokes or the White Stripes to be saviors of rock, we just exhumed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to do it again. It’s almost comical that the recent remastered reissues (expanded 2-disc versions!) of the Zeppelin catalogue rolled out exactly 20 years after the 1994 remasters. Can a shark jump the shark?

Anniversary culture gives us an excuse to tell the world which albums changed our lives and how. We gather in the town square (Facebook/Twitter) and remind our friends that A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory came out 24 years ago. We make our high school buddies feel old by telling them Van Halen’s 1984 is 31 YEARS OLD while websites gather clicks by offering us info on the whereabouts of the woman from the “Hot For Teacher” video. Obviously seminal albums like the Stones Exile on Main St get lavish remastered reissues, and so do lesser-known but still critically acclaimed efforts like Bob Mould’s Workbook, but soon enough there’s a niche within the niche and we’re “celebrating” albums that weren’t so great the first time around. Or maybe the album might be worthy, but we don’t wanna wait for the 20th or 25th anniversaries, so now just “It was 10 years ago today” is good enough.

best_double_albums_3203775bInstead of listing every album that’s had an anniversary reissue, it would be easier to list the ones that haven’t. As for which ones are worthy of buying a second or third time… this brings us from the nostalgia phenomenon to our other favorite rock pastime: Top 10 Lists. From the dawn of the first day spent on that hypothetical desert island, we’ve been making our personal Top 10 lists. Once everyone and their former record-store coworkers had blogs, rock fans everywhere were raging against the tastemakers and righting all the wrongs unjustly handed down by the gatekeepers at Rolling Stone or SPIN or the Grammy voters and anyone else who gets it wrong when trying to tell us what’s good.

It’s a way to make sense of a senseless world in which Bob Marley never won a Grammy and Ziggy Marley’s career is already longer than Bob’s. Read more…

December 25, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Best Albums of 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.

December 3, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Wu Fighters vs. Foo Tang Clan

I can’t be the only who’s noticed the similarities between the cover art for the new Wu-Tang Clan and Foo Fighters albums.

Obviously they’re not identical, but they both utilize the exact same concept: an imaginary “city” made up of famous landmarks from several different real cities. Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways combines the eight cities where they recorded the eight songs, while Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow has an international flavor.

Check it out:

Foo City

Foo City

and…

Wu City.

Wu City

November 11, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

The Endless River: Pink Floyd Floats On

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd's Endless River.

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd’s The Endless River.

It’s hard to know through what prism we should even view the idea of A New Pink Floyd Album in 2014. But The Endless River has arrived: the first new Pink Floyd album in 20 years and reportedly their last.

Plenty has already been written regarding the “Post-Waters” era of The Floyd, referring to the mid-1980s departure of bassist and main songwriter/visionary for the legendary British band’s peak run from The Dark Side of the Moon through The Wall and The Final Cut. After legally retaining the Pink Floyd moniker, guitarist David Gilmour took the helm for 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell (with drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright mostly along for the ride in name only for Momentary and much more involved for Division). Many fans and critics bemoaned that this modern-Floyd wasn’t the REAL Floyd without Waters. They weren’t necessarily wrong, if there had to be an ultimate answer to the question of “Which one’s Pink?”

I’ve recently come around to really like both albums, even if the accusations of Floyd-lite or “Pink Fraud” are not entirely false. But Gilmour’s amazing guitar tone, let alone performance, and overall sound quality make the latter-day Pink Floyd worth listening to. And let’s face it, Roger Waters hasn’t made any great solo albums. He made one pretty good one (The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking) and a few painfully average and forgettable ones (a list that technically includes Floyd’s The Final Cut). The only thing missing from the post-Waters Floyd albums is him yelling at us about war and pudding.

Other than a one-off reunion for the Live-8 concert in 2005, more repackaged hits collections, and some remastered catalog reissues, Pink Floyd has been mostly dormant for the last 20 years and keyboardist Wright died of Cancer in 2008. So the sudden news of A New Pink Floyd Album was a bit surprising. Given the band history just summarized, and the considerable time that has passed, if “A New Pink Floyd Album” meant “Let’s throw out something that sounds like Momentary Lapse as an excuse to go on a money-grab tour with just two surviving members,” then it would have been a pathetic disaster. Thankfully, that’s not what this is…

pink-floyd-the-endless-river-cd-pic

The Endless River is mostly instrumental jams left over from what was originally going to be an “ambient” companion disc to The Division Bell. The band has said it’s basically a tribute to Wright, as his pianos and keyboards are central to these tracks, though Gilmour and Mason added some overdubs and reworked a few things to flesh it out. There’s only one lyrical/vocal track, “Louder Than Words,” tastefully (thankfully?) placed at the end. Of all the things “A New Pink Floyd Album” could have been, I must say a mostly instrumental “ambient” record like this is probably the best possible scenario. Without any lyrics and singing to give the listener any outside preconceptions of what the song is “about” or force tired old comparisons to the old Waters material, the simple grooves and chord changes and wailing guitar sounds that were all very much as central to “the real Floyd” as Roger Waters himself, it’s almost like the dying body of Pink Floyd can finally… breathe…

So what does it sound like? Read more…

October 22, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

Interview With (A) Neil Young (Fan)

NeilYoungNeil Young has been making the media rounds lately, and since he always has some new album or other new endeavor going on almost every year, I figured instead of interviewing Neil Young, I’d interview a Neil Young fan instead.

Actually, I couldn’t land an interview with Neil Young if I tried, so “Interview With (A) Neil Young (Fan)” isn’t just the next best thing, it’s the only thing.

We were both born in the early 70’s, so we were still mere babies when Neil Young became a star and first embedded himself into the rock’n’roll popular culture consciousness with his solo works and albums with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. As a teenager in the 80’s (probably the commercial and critical low point of his career), what drew you to Neil Young and how did you become such a big fan? Or did it start earlier as a child in the 70’s?

I remember one of my older brothers owning the Live Rust album and him cranking the songs “Sugar Mountain” and “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” and just being enamored with the sounds. I had no grasp of who Neil Young was. Like any younger brother I just wanted to emulate whatever my brother did.  A few years later I started playing the guitar and  I heard “Down By The River.” I remember thinking that it was a song unlike any I had ever heard before. It’s unpolished, simplistic nature was just something I was not used to hearing at that time. Matter of fact, I recall the first CD I ever purchased being Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere simply for that song. When I headed off to college I somehow scored the Decade compilation and that pretty much pushed me over the edge.

Your personal Absolute Favorite Neil Young Album, if you were force to name just one?

Wow, now that might be the hardest question you could ever ask a Neil Young fan such as myself. I honestly can’t say that I have a “favorite” album of his since there are so many that I am drawn to. I mean, On The Beach holds a special place in my heart because I love every single song on that record (an album I received in a trade with a close friend. I got On The Beach, he got a Cindy Crawford Playboy). And while Decade is a “compilation” vs. a proper album, it is perhaps the album that turned me from a casual fan into a hardcore one. It would be the album that I would probably tell someone who’s never heard Neil to listen to first. Those being said, I also absolutely love Tonight’s The Night, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Le Noise, and I do own the 63-72 Archives box set which is off the hook awesome.  Might as well toss in Rust Never Sleeps because let’s face it, it’s fuckin’ awesome. Live At Massey Hall used to only be a bootleg but it’s since had a proper release, and is Neil as his intimate, solo, acoustic best!

Read more…

September 10, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

BONO IS IN YOUR YARD HOLDING A BOOMBOX OVER HIS HEAD

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn't even have to make a cover!

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn’t even have time to make a cover!

First, this isn’t really a first. Thousands of bands release free digital albums all the time. Even in the realm of major commercial artists obviously we had Radiohead “giving away” In Rainbows almost 7 years ago as part of a “pay what you want” thing… and as for selling it to a corporate sponsor for them to give away, Prince had his Twenty Ten CD given away with a newspaper in the U.K. a few years ago. AC/DC, the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Prince and several others have cut exclusive deals with the likes of Target and WalMart. Jay-Z had an (intrusive) app to deliver his free album (sponsored by Samsung). And Beyonce and others have done the suddenly announced/released “IT’S HERE NOW” album drop.

U2 selling this to Apple for them to then “give” to us is a bit of a hybrid of those previous releases. I guess the main difference is that they actually PUT IT ON YOUR COMPUTER. Lots of major artists give away tracks for free, or offer streaming previews etc… plenty of free tracks that most people can’t be bothered to “go get” (by clicking a mouse several times).

This is Bono coming to your house and standing in your yard holding a boombox over his head.

Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know” he sings as he crawls into your inbox.

The cynical among us will say we’ve already talked about U2 enough, or entirely too much, over the last 25 years or so… and “who cares,” and that any critical discussion about That New Free U2 Album is just falling for Bono’s trick and giving them the publicity they want. OK. Rock bands might not be the most important subject in the world (to you guys) but within the realm of “The Arts” and “Pop Culture,” if we’re going to chronicle every time Justin Beiber pisses in a bucket, then perhaps it’s okay to give 15 minutes of fame to discussing the new U2 album and its method of delivery.

I mean, leave it to U2 to somehow pull off a “surprise album” that’s been years in the hyping.

Doing it this way saves them from any potential embarrassment of it “flopping” and/or the reality that even U2 isn’t gonna sell millions of copies like the old days. By any measure, conventional sales figures of this album would have looked bad by U2 standards even if still in line with rock-bottom expectations of music sales in 2014. So this gets them publicity and they get to look like they gave it away for free…

This is how U2-level artists deal with the new Music (Lack-of) Business, and of course we shed few tears cuz they’re already rich…. and obviously there’s a few levels of artists trying to get their music heard (from the novice garage bands, to the mid-level professional but still anonymous artists on up to the superstar stratosphere). So now even the U2s of the world have to pull stunts just to get heard and “play for free” (even if their new album giveaway was actually subsidized by a large corporation). It’s just funny that even they have to do this shit.

After the first several listens, I’d say there’s some interesting tracks and some more late-career filler with a few pretty good kinda “raw” moments as well… and a few more examples of Bono going for the Big Huge Sweeping Sentiment lyrics… but it’s still too soon to have a strong opinion. (Ultimately it sounds destined for “not-horrific, better than their last one, but still just OK” status.) Read more…

August 26, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

On Ice Buckets and Challenges

Thanks to my brother Mark for nominating me for the #ALS #IceBucketChallenge. I’m not making a video, but will be sure to join the masses who have donated. The nature of charity is that you don’t advertise how much you give (but my donation will be in the 10’s of dollars, I can assure you).

Of course, NOT doing an ice bucket video makes me a bit of party pooper in 2014, and that’s okay. If you want to see ice bucket videos, I’m pretty sure you will find some out there. Dave Grohl dressed up as Carrie. Sammy Hagar telling Eddie and Alex Van Halen to go jump in a lake. Eminem on stage during a concert. I’m pretty sure our friend who called out my wife had someone dump pool water over her head while they were standing in the pool. I thought that was just called “Summer.”

The spirit of this ALS viral fundraising phenomenon, the big picture as I see it, is to bring a “less popular” disease to the forefront. Of course (and unfortunately) we have more than enough diseases and famine in the world that we don’t lack options for our charity dollar.

The ice bucket challenge has brought Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)—also referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” and Motor Neurone Disease (MND)—out of the shadows 75 years after Gehrig’s last at-bat for the Yankees. This craze has inspired people all over the world to pour in record numbers of donations (see what I did there?).

The death of Robin Williams was my bucket of ice.

Robin Williams died of perhaps the darkest and most unknowable disease there is: Depression. We don’t know what else was going within him to cause his suicide, and reports that he was also beginning a battle with Parkinson’s only leave us with more questions.

I don’t know what it’s like to experience true Depression. Yes, I’ve been sad, but I’ve always had perspective, and a positive outlook on life and I’m always looking to make a joke. Part of the reason for this happiness is that I grew up watching Robin Williams. From the slapstick insanity of Mork and the furious stand-up routines (that also stood at the forefront of the pop-culture/charity movements of the 1980s with Comic Relief) to the dramatic roles that reminded us “You’re not perfect, sport,” and “Seize the day,” Robin Williams improved our mental state while he either numbed his own, or simply held on tight as it deteriorated.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on something that’s supposed to be fun (sorry). All of this is just my long-winded way of avoiding a big bucket of ice water getting dumped on my head. But just as this viral trend has flooded ALS charities (oops, I did it again) with much-needed support, we need to continue to shine our lights, and cameras, and actions, into the shadows of mental illness and addiction.

As always with this stuff, like with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death… when it’s Cancer or other diseases, there’s usually this tremendous support and compassion… but with Depression, especially when mixed with a history of any type of substance abuse, there’s a stigma, there’s this idea that, “Well, fuck him, he shouldn’t have been such a waste-oid. He did this to himself.” Most substance abuse may start off as choosing to party, choosing to get fucked up, but it too is a disease, no matter if the chicken or the egg is first. Some people turn to substance abuse as a result of Depression. Obviously Depression is a separate animal from Addiction… but they are often treated, or mistreated, similarly.

So I’ll be matching my ALS donation and finding some mental health charities to support as well. And heck, I’m also a big fan of “Music in Schools” charities too! But that’s for another post.

For now, I can only imagine what Robin Williams could have done with a bucket of ice, a camera, and a challenge.

July 16, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Top 10 Jazz Albums That Sound Like Children’s Book Titles

school daysThis is where we’re at with Top 10 Lists: we don’t need another “Desert Island Classic” list of the Top 10 Best Rock Albums and no one really cares what my favorite instrumental albums or Top 10 Live Albums are, but I wrote those lists anyway (and can I interest you in my Top Albums of 2013?).

Why not get even more random and silly with it: how ’bout the Top 10 Consecutive 3-Album Runs… or even the Top 10 Best Album Covers That Match the Best Albums from 2011?

So, as a casual jazz fan on a recent Miles Davis kick (and a father of two young boys), it popped in my head that there’s some good jazz album titles that sound like children’s books. And, just to teach about counting (or set a bad example of such), this Top 10 Jazz Albums (That Sound Like Children’s Book Titles) list contains 12 items!

  1. Miles Davis – Milestones
  2. Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
  3. Stanley Clarke – School Days
  4. Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
  5. Wynton Marsalis – Big Train
  6. Chick Corea – Children’s Songs
  7. Pat Metheny – Imaginary Day
  8. John Coltrane – My Favorite Things
  9. Herbie Hancock – Dis Is Da Drum
  10. Ornette Coleman – Soapsuds, Soapsuds
  11. Modern Jazz Quartet – Patterns
  12. Charlie Parker – Ornithology (Okay, so maybe this one woulda been called Big Book of Birds or whatever…)
July 10, 2014 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Fantasy Rock Band

Just stare at that chart in all its trivial rock’n’roll glory.

As arbitrary as the chosen musicians and their corresponding “salaries” might be, and countless arguments can be made about who’s missing and who’s under/overpriced, I’m still fascinated by this! [We could make 5 or 10 different salary charts based on this same concept, but as you can see, @MattNorlander made this one, so credit to him and send him any of your complaints.]

A few things are keeping me from making a final decision on a line up. Should I just try to make the salary work under the $25 cap, or also consider how the styles/playing fits together? Just like in sports, perhaps more so, chemistry can be as important as talent. But, this is fantasy. I think it’s safe to assume we are getting each of these guys at their peak, and not current (and in some cases, dead) state. Is it a requirement of this pointless fictional game to spend the full $25? What about getting credit/points for spending less?

My day is shot.

One inherent flaw is the idea of strictly defining the guitarists as either “Lead” or “Rhythm” guitarists. Sure, guys like Keith Richards and Neil Young are more known for riffage than shredding, but that’s not all they can do. Jimmy Page is listed as Rhythm but I’m pretty sure he’s capable of playing Lead. On the flipside, the top Lead Guitarist is Jimi Hendrix, but he’s more than capable of playing a Rhythm role as well. Same for George Harrison (listed as the cheapest “Lead” option, perhaps because we often think of him as a peaceful strum-along type).

So that leads (LEADS, see what I did there?) to more questions: should I pick 2 very versatile guitarists so they each fill both rhythm and lead duties? Or go for a more defined rhythm-lead combo? We’ll play with some lineup options later, but thought it should be noted that the guitar slots are tougher to define than Drums or Bass.

“Frontman” seems easily defined, but there’s some basic flaws with that slot too. Are women eligible? (In fact, there are no women anywhere on this chart, so that’s another general complaint to be launched elsewhere on behalf of Janis Joplin, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde, and Ann & Nancy Wilson.) And are we judging/choosing our Frontman on vocal abilities alone or does stage presence play into it? Again, chemistry comes into play, how will a given Frontman’s voice sound with a given supergroup of musicians? If you choose some hard-rockin metal-leaning musicians, then Axl Rose might be a better choice than, say, Bono or Mick Jagger. But I’d trust Bono and Jagger to actually show up to the gigs and perform on time, and in general I don’t think I’d want Axl Rose in any band I was putting together.

Read more…

July 9, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

An Ode To Judas Priest

judas_priest_wallpaper_by_coshkun-d3in61p
Between the years of 1982 – 1988 my favorite band on the planet–by a wide margin–was Judas Priest. I was borderline obsessed and consider them my first true musical love. My bedroom walls were covered with 6′ posters, wall tapestries, and cut out photos from the likes of Creem and Hit Parader of my leather-clad heroes. When my parents bought me my first Walkman the first tape I threw in was Priest’s underrated debut album Rocka Rolla and I listened to it 10,000 times if I listened to it once.

During this time period you would hard pressed to find a heavy metal band bigger than Judas Priest (maybe Iron Maiden, but that is an argument I choose to not partake in since I had it about 1639 times in 8th grade with my Maiden-loving cohorts. I’ll admit this though: Maiden had way better album covers). They had some radio-friendly singles (“Breaking The Law”, “Living After Midnight”, and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) and pretty much sold out 20,000 seat arenas all over America (I should also note here that Priest was able to achieve this success without ever being considered “sell outs” and continually sustaining respect among their peers, including being one of the few metal bands asked to perform at Live Aid. They had a plethora of metal street cred stocked up in their well).

On June 6, 1986 I became one of those 20,000 fans and attended my first concert ever at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey: Judas Priest with opener…Krokus (a band that had absolutely zero shot of “blowing” anyone off the stage but themselves). I knew every note of every song they played. I sang along to every anthemic chorus The Metal God sang, and I pumped my 13-year old fists in the devil horn \m/ for 2+ hours. I didn’t want the show to end. It was heavy metal ecstasy up to an including the guy in the row in front of us asking me if I had a rolling paper (I had no idea what a rolling paper was at the time. I just wanted to hear “Victim Of Changes“–which they didn’t play but did at a later show I saw).

Over the next few years I would see Priest only three more times during this peak period of their career. As I aged, my musical tastes expanded and Priest slowly fell out of my repertoire. I always maintained a respect for the band, it’s just that over time, some of their music didn’t age too well and some of their later albums didn’t have the direction and cohesiveness of their previous works. They seemed more like a band trying to fit in with the modern trends (Turbo) vs. creating them (British Steel). Turbo was a synth-laced pop metal album (which some fans, to this day, will never forgive them for). Ram It Down (the last album I actually bought of theirs) seemed like it had the band heading back in the right direction, but it’s trashy, speed-metalesque songs just didn’t sound like…Judas Priest. I mean, it had the fast guitar solos, the insane operatic metal screams, and the “metal” lyrics. It simply didn’t sound like the Priest we were used to but a Priest that was trying to keep up with new up-and-comers like Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Pantera (all heavily influenced by, as Phil Anselmo calls em, Judas Fuckin’ Priest!).

Read more…

April 23, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

A List Of TV Shows That You Should Watch

tvI watch way too much TV. Anyone within earshot of me on a daily basis probably thinks that I spend all of my free time watching television shows and then recapping them with friends and co-workers. To some degree this is true. I believe we are (still) in “The Golden Age Of Television” (a term I did not make up but one that critics generally refer to as anything that’s been put on TV since The Sopranos first aired. If you ask me, it started with HBO’s Oz, but I won’t rock the boat on this one). I have nothing against non-TV watchers, I just want you to know that you are missing out on some quality programming these days.

With the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Go, iTunes, etc. binge watching has replaced good old fashion week-to-week anticipation. Cliffhanger ended the last episode? Don’t want to wait a week (or a year) to see who killed off your favorite character? Simply click the “Next Episode” button and binge away. Netflix even goes as far as releasing every episode of its shows seasons at once. Anticipation be damned!

Online recaps are as abundant as Starbucks and McDonald’s. Noted publications/sites from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone run endless stories, interviews, recaps, discussions, and podcasts about popular television series. The most recent season debut of The Walking Dead drew over 16 million viewers (to put that into perspective, there are around 300 million people in the US. 16+ million of them are watching a show about zombies). I am one of those 16 million viewers and I watch–and have watched–a ton of television series in my day (mostly dramas). Way too much some would say.

You might be very apprehensive when it comes to deciding which series to watch first–since there are so many good choices out there. Even if you missed the initial run of The West Wing you can easily binge through all its seasons online. But should you watch that or catch up on Mad Men? Is True Blood worth diving into? How many seasons behind am I? You hear “everyone” talking about how great these shows are and you’re kinda interested in them but don’t know where to start. I equate it with how I feel when I walk into a really good music store (yes, some do still exist!): I am overwhelmed with having to narrow down my choices in order make a selection. When I sift through 80 Zappa records trying to figure out which one to buy, how do I know which one to begin with?

So lucky for you (I think?) I am here to write you a list of what I feel are excellent television series that you should watch. This is not a list of the “best shows ever” in some arbitrary order (I mean, how could I say The Wire is better than The Sopranos or vice-versa? I can’t!).  I am purposefully not putting numbers in here because I cannot rank them in terms of greatness.

The following list contains my personal favorites when it comes to great television.  I hope that if there is a series on this list you have not watched–or have been tempted to watch–that my brief explanation(s) of the show(s) might intrigue you enough to get started. (Note: I did my best to not include any spoilers.)

Read more…

March 6, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

Zappa Plays Zappa As Good As Zappa

11mays.large2I consider myself a big Frank Zappa fan. Yet, just by looking over his discography, I realized that I am not that big a Frank Zappa fan. He has over 60 albums produced, hundreds of live shows recorded and released, tv performances, movies, etc. I would need three lifetimes of isolated listening just to digest (and understand) even half of his catalog.

So when I recently bought tickets to see Zappa Plays Zappa at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, I went into it fully realizing that I probably wouldn’t know half the songs they were going to play. So I cheated in order to tease myself: I went online and checked out some previous set lists from this tour and wouldn’t you know it, more than half of the songs in the list were ones I had never heard (I find it necessary to put a disclaimer in here right now because I know how crazy some Zappaheads can get: I am a Zappa fan, but not a fanatic. My preference when it comes to Zappa are more inline with his “serious” works vs. the “satire”, “improv”, and “humor” he often implemented into his music and shows. While I fully appreciate that aspect of his songwriting genius, I simply prefer(ed) to listen to him wail on the guitar while the Greatest Back-Up Band(s)-To-Ever-Walk-The-Face-Of-The-Earth went bat shit crazy behind him. Therefor, I am aware that my knowledge of his discography is limited yet still deeper than casual.)

I went to see a Zappa cover band a few years back (I won’t mention their name) and left after five songs. Not because they weren’t good (cause let’s face it, just being able to play one Zappa song–any Zappa song–makes you a pretty damn good musician in my book), but because it just wasn’t anywhere close to the real thing. It lacked authenticity. Dweezil Zappa heads up Zappa Plays Zappa, and Dweezil is as close to Frank as we as fans are ever going to get. It’s like watching Jason Bonham play drums: even if his last name wasn’t Bonham we’d still be impressed with his playing nonetheless. It just helps to alleviate any apprehension we have towards listening by saying to ourselves, “well, at least it’s his son playing!” While some children-of-famous-musicians go out of their way to avoid the shadows of their parents, Dweezil has embraced his legendary father’s music. Frank’s shadow is simply too long to avoid.

Right off the bat I knew the band would be good. How could they not be? I just wasn’t prepared for how good. Let’s start with Dweezil. Obviously we know the dude can play guitar (Franks Gibson SG to be exact). But come on, man, when did he get this good? (probably 20 years ago, I just wasn’t paying attention). I am rarely into the fast, shredding-type players (I appreciate Vai, Satriani, et al, but to me, it’s just dudes playing fast for other dudes to impress them with how fast they can play, dude.), but Dweezil inherited his father’s Coltrane-esque phrasing and sense of the musical moment. His guitar sounded sweet, he played it sweet, and he did his father’s music much justice. I thought during one of Dweezil’s (many) guitar solos, “Frank would be impressed.”

I’ve always said that you can take 8 bars of a Zappa song and any other band would make an entire song out of it. Within each song is basically 4-8 movements. The amount of concentration and memory it must take to perform a set of his music is mind-boggling. As a musician, when you watch other musicians that are this good, it makes you either want to quit playing altogether…or practice more.   I won’t list each member of the band here (drummer, keyboard, bass, two multi-instrumentalists/vocalists) because you don’t need to hear about how great each of them were individually. They were absolutely amazing in every sense.

The highlight of the show was an improvisational moment when Dweezil called up a young girl from the audience who couldn’t have been older than 7. He asked her, “do you play any instruments?” to which she replied, “the flute.” Dweezil proceeded to put his guitar around her shoulder and stand behind her as he helped her “play” it. The audience roared. He turned the distortion to ten, cranked out some AC/DC-type rocker riff and the band picked up behind them. This little girl was jamming onstage with the band and we, the audience, ate it up. It was classic Zappa showmanship. Once she was done–and the standing ovation died down–he asked her, “so…still want to play the flute?” You think that girl doesn’t grow up to join a band??? Let’s hope.

There were so many insane musical moments throughout the show that it’s hard to point out any one. It’s such a profound experience when you witness such great musicianship in a live setting. I have always known that Zappa’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be complicated and confusing to the average listener. The odd rhythms and weird instrumentation (and even weirder, often hilariously satirical lyrics) assured he would never have a #1 hit. Parts rarely repeat themselves. Shit, time signatures rarely repeat themselves. It’s not “easy listening” by any account. Dweezil and his band did a fantastic job of keeping the musical visions of Frank alive, and judging by the near sold out crowd and numerous standing ovations, there are still plenty of people out there that appreciate the Zappa catalog. As hard as that is to imagine, it gives me hope knowing that some music fans still want to be challenged by the artists they listen to.

February 6, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

Lefties

I am right-handed. I throw a ball right-handed, when I used to actually use a pen and paper I wrote right-handed, I kick right-handed, punch right-handed, and play drums right-handed. But I play guitar left-handed. It’s odd, I know. When I was 13 years old and just beginning my excursion into learning the instrument the most common advice I received from other players was “practice” and “learn how to play right-handed.” I did the first, never bothered with the second.

At the time I didn’t understand why anyone would actually care if I played lefty or righty. Now I realize why: do you know how hard it is to find a left-handed guitar and/or accessory options? They are out there, of course, and I have obviously been able to purchase quite a few in my day. But walk into most any music store and you will undoubtedly see dozens upon dozens of guitars, 97% of which are right-handed (you might find a few lefties in the mix; usually shitty, low-level Strat and Les Paul knock-offs). You would think, considering some of the all-time great players have been left-handed, we wouldn’t be so ‘discriminated’ against. Is it wrong that I find some pleasurable ironic humor in situations where right-handed players are in my midst without their guitars and they can’t play mine because it’s “backwards”? Call it cosmic payback, musician karma, whatever. Come on, I can at least pick up a righty and throw together some chords. Probably because I have spent my entire playing life surrounded by you backward-ass right-handed players.

Which leads me to the reason I am even writing this post: to celebrate the influence that some of rock and rolls lefties have brought us. I bring you, what I feel is, a list of some of the most-influential guitar players of all time. And guess what? They are all lefties!

Read more…

February 5, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

Selling Out: Who’s Buying?

gordon9

We are, in fact, only in it for the money.

This morning I was listening to The Howard Stern Show and he had 60’s icon/songwriter/musician Donovan on for an interview and some impromptu acoustic performances. Since it was Stern it was, of course, a great interview (say what you will about the man, but he is, hands down, the single best interviewer I have ever seen or listened to. Especially when it comes to musicians.). Donovan spouted off stories about his days hanging with The Fab Four, recording his hits with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones as session men (pre-Zep), and then  showed Howard how this one descending chord progression is used in tons of songs you know and love (he went on to play “Dear Prudence”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “House Of the Rising Sun”, and more to prove his point–they all use the same type of progression). Then Howard asked him questions along the lines of, “Does it amaze you that so many people know the lyrics to your songs and sing along? Were you aware that would be the case when you wrote them? How do you know when a song is good?” Donovan’s response was insightful. He told Howard, “the first thing  you need to do is please yourself. The second is impress your peers. The last thing you think about is the fans.”

It reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with some fellow musicians. We were ranting and raving about bands that “make it” vs. ones that don’t (including ours, which is why we were so bitter at the time). Then a sentence was uttered that has stuck with me ever since: you have to start making music for yourself.

Most bands and musicians start out with the goal of “making it.” And by “making it” I mean, in simple terms, being able to make music as your professional career, i.e. get paid to make music. Very few fulfill this dream.  When starting out, most artists are all about pleasing the fans, mainly, because they are trying to get some. But for those that  really hit it big (U2, Metallica, The Stones, etc.) they basically get to dictate their own careers once they do.  After Metallica’s Black Album sold a gazillion copies they essentially earned the right to do whatever the fuck they wanted. You think U2 cares if you think Zooropa sucked?

Growing up, the term “selling out” was one of the biggest insults you could hurl at an artist. This was mostly applied in the hardcore/punk/metal scenes. When Metallica came on in the early 80’s they were underground, dirt-bag metalheads wearing jeans jackets, ripped jeans, and sneakers while playing the fastest, most maniacal music on the planet. Now they play the Grammy’s and get mentioned on Good Morning America. Ozzy Osbourne was the devil incarnate back in 1982–now his music appears in car commercials. Does that mean Metallica and Ozzy have “sold out” or that a.) the powers that be are now people of the age that grew up loving these musicians so they are celebrating that love, b.) in this day and age you do whatever you can to get your music out there, or c.) there is no such thing anymore as “selling out.” (I think Ian MacKaye would disagree with c.).

Read more…

January 10, 2014 / Jaded Bitterman

Modern Man: A Night With Stanley Clarke

timthumbLast night the wife and I went to a local music/dinner club called The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. It’s a great venue with a great reputation that books acts ranging from jazz greats to blues masters to Americana roots rock. You walk in, grab a seat at a communal table, order over-priced but decent dinner fare, and watch the artists perform to a room full of attentive spectators.  It’s a music club for people who don’t mind sitting down while watching music. It offers you the ability to enjoy an artist without the distractions that come with most rock clubs.

That is why I was somewhat amazed last night on a few levels. We went to see the legendary (and way too under-appreciated) Stanley Clarke. If you don’t know who he is, well, go find out. Before the show I knew of Stanley Clarke, “heard of him” but never actually listened to any of his music knowingly. He’s done work on movie soundtracks, played with some of the all-time jazz greats, and is generally well-regarded in the musical community. He’s a bass player that transcends classification. A true “artist” of his craft. Funk, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, salsa, etc. etc. etc. Stanley Clarke has played it and played it better than 99.99% of anyone else that ever has.

What amazed me first and foremost during the show was his scaled-down band: Stanley on bass, a drummer, and a piano player. I thought, “Ok, this is going to be ‘good’ but probably end up repetitive and boring as the set goes on. I mean, how much can you do with a trio like that?” Of course I was wrong (it’s happened before and depending on whom you ask the numbers vary). The drummer was 19 and the piano player (from the Republic of Georgia) was 17! Let me say that again: 17! (As of this posting Stanley Clarke is 62).

I think it’s pretty wise for an old-timer like Clarke to select young, extremely talented musicians to surround him. They brought an exuberance that helped keep the set fresh and improvisational. They were both spectacular at their respective instruments. The drummer’s arms on some of his solos looked like humming birds wings and the piano player played with a passion and soul you seldom find in someone so young. They both received more than one standing ovation.

Read more…

December 8, 2013 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Top 20 Best Albums of 2013

I’m still an album guy. Not necessarily vinyl, but Albums with a capital A to mean a body of work consisting of a group of songs. I’m mostly a digital consumer of music, on MP3 and yes I still sometimes rock CD’s in the car.

It seems nowadays we talk more about how we listen to our music, instead of the actual music itself. We flash badges on social media to signify that we’re with Pandora or Spotify, we subscribe to iTunes or (in my case) Amazon MP3. We see flashy commercials for $200 headphones and share playlists between our phones and auto-post our current listening pleasures on Facebook and Twitter. And I guess it’s assumed most people are listening to their awesome playlists of trending tracks, on random of course.

But I still listen to full albums. I never throw a bunch of songs by different artists into a queue, I listen to each “album” straight through. I’m not saying it’s any better and I’m not here to rant on how things have changed. But lost among the technology discussions and the hand wringing over digital rights and the business of music and the allegedly dying Music Business… let’s remember the actual music. And, for me, The Music comes not in the form of the Hottest Track of The Summer or Latest Trending Single.

When I talk about The Music, I want to talk about albums. The Best Albums of 2013, in fact, according to me and based on what I liked listening to the most. Here are my Top 20 Albums of 2013:

20. Atoms For Peace – AMOK
Flea’s famous funk sounds a bit buried among the Thom Yorke/Nigel Godrich production that mostly sounds like a continuation of Yorke’s first solo album. But the subtle rhythms by not just Flea but percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refoscodo reveal themselves through repeated listening. It might be a better Tide-You-Over-Til-The-Next-Radiohead album than the last the Radiohead album was.

19. Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw
Catchy folk recommended for fans of Dawes and/or Dr. Dog.

18. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Was never really into NIN when they first peaked, but have grown to dig on some recent Trent Reznor projects. And surprisingly this new one is quite “accessible” (which is what critics say when they want to let you know it isn’t just noise… there are actual hummable songs and hooks here).

17. David Bowie – The Next Day
I was never a massive Bowie enthusiast. A casual fan. The best-of’s and hits collections were enough for me. I respected him but admit I was never well versed in the depth of what’s considered all of the best albums. I actually don’t think much about David Bowie. But then with little notice he came back out of left field and what was assumed to be a likely quiet retirement and graceful aging if health permitted. And the album was a rockin’ and infectious gem or a record that I was kinda addicted to listening to for several weeks there. Even if you’re just a little Bowie-curious, definitely worth checking out The Next Day.

16. Inspectah Deck w/ 7L & Esoteric – Czarface
7L & Esoteric have a knack for pumping out modern-day “90s Hip-Hop Classics” if you know what I mean. Their basic production value and overall aesthetic is a direct descendant of the Guru & DJ Premier pairing that gave Gang Starr it’s mass appeal. The catchy beats come in waves as the smilies and metaphors surf atop them effortlessly. On 2013’s Czarface, they’re joined by Inspectah Deck a microphone master and unsung hero from the Wu-Tang Clan to inject even more energy into mix.

15. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push Away the Sky
On Push Away the Sky we get mellow and creepy Nick. And somehow it’s every bit as effective, affecting, and addictive as rocking and creepy Nick was on Dig Lazarus Dig!

14. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
At times gimmicky and pastiche, these robot dudes really do know how to make some great-sounding music. Niles Rodgers incomparable guitar work is the MVP here, even if after a while the whole funky 70s vibe does eventually lose some of it’s luster. But beyond the “Get Lucky” sheen there’s a variety of tracks here, including some spoken word by Giorgio Moroder, with the subtle standout being “Instant Crush” featuring a lead vocal by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Daft Punk may never pull off those helmets, but somehow they managed to pull off making the robots sound human and the humans sound like robots. And you can dance to it.

13. Black Sabbath – 13
OK if they couldn’t work things out with original drummer Bill Ward, at least they got former Rage Against the Machine beatmaster Brad Wilk to crush these classic-sounding riffs. Considering what a debacle a comeback album like this could have been, it’s a downright enjoyable and rockin’ return to form (of sorts). And yes of course I switched them around so they’d be #13 on this list. \m/

12. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana
Oh, look: It’s this year’s “Haunting, sparse acoustic production meets Dylanesque phrasing” album. And it’s a good one.

11. Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion
Tremendous live band, and on record they remain sad but true. It’s such bummer music, but you believe every word and the harmonies are so good that you have to keep listening.

10. Clutch – Earth Rocker
If you know Clutch, you know they are the best relatively unknown hard rock band in America. If you’ve never heard of Clutch, you need to get with the program. And this new effort is as good as any place to start. Maybe I’m blinded by the shiny newness of the crunching riffs, but Earth Rocker might every bit as good as previous Clutch classics like Robot Hive Exodus, the self-titled album from 1995, or whatever you think is the Best Clutch Album. By the way, these guys wont just rock your face off, they’re also underrated songwriters. Dig in.

9. Vampire Weekend – Vampires of the City
That rare breed of “critics darlings” who actually live up the hype. Incredibly well-crafted album that may have marketed as a new sound actually succeeds by combining the best features of their first two albums. Cinematic and precise, and somehow still fun.

8. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Stunning singer/songwriter strips it down, with sensational results. If you think you hate country music, think about checking out this (and every) Jason Isbell album. Short on twang, but long on songs.

7. The Roots & Elvis Costello – Wise Up Ghost
It’s weird. It’s like people are stalking the weird thoughts in my head. Not even that, cuz I never dreamed of putting the Roots and Elvis Costello. But I’ve loved them both very much for a very long time. And yet even I found word of their collaboration to be odd. But hot damn if this isn’t a great set that finds E.C. In his usual whine, but the songwriting and the rich tapestry of grooves of Questlove and the band make this one of the most enjoyable records from Elvis in a while. And, along with their Wake Up! Collab with John Legend in 2011, it’s yet another funky notch in the belt of the Legendary Roots Crew.

6. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
I don’t throw them on here lightly. What I mean is this isn’t a “career” award or anything like that. Their new album is GOOD. Really good. Not that the last two were bad, but they were okay/good. Like at the time we knew they were sorta Pearl-Jam-By-Numbers generic “good” but we convinced ourselves they were actual Good. But Lightning Bolt is Good. Really good. Pearl Jam good.

5. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Apologies to Jay-Z and his buddy Kanye, but as far as megastar rappers who can still put out a great album and rip the mic to shreds to the point that he’s murdering the English language… Eminem sits atop the throne. His more famous counterparts might have bigger social media strategies and yachts and famous wives, but hip-hop has always been mostly about LYRICS. Jay-Z is an iconic rapper but he no longer has anything to say. Kanye’s always been a good producer and still makes incredibly interesting music (the beats and backing tracks) but he’s never been a good rapper. On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem proves that he still has plenty to say and the astounding verbal dexterity and unparalleled flow with which to do it. Instead of boring us with stories of champagne and caviar, Marshall Mathers doesn’t mind showing us he’s still hungry.

4. Killer Mike & EL-P – Run the Jewels
Probably my favorite hip-hop album of the year. While El-P has a reputation as a space-age futuristic producer (and he is that), he also drops some seriously old-school beats and bangers that rival the best producers in the game. And oh by the way, on this set he harnesses his frenetic flow on the mic and more than holds his own next to his buddy Killer Mike, who again brings his hard rhymes and booming vocal style. This logical progression from last year’s R.A.P. Music album (credited to Killer Mike, and produced by EL-P) find the pair once again proving the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” doubters dead wrong.

3. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
This might be the most perfect record of the year. Josh Homme has picked up his axe and this time he’s brought Dave Grohl’s thunderdrums along on a bunch of the songs, and even Elton John (!) shows up. Perfectly crafted rock’n’roll music, Like Clockwork is a timeless classic. [Speaking of Sir Elton, this seems like a good place to throw an Honorable Mention to John’s fine new album The Diving Board.]

2. Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare
Oh, I shoulda made this album #1. Perhaps my favorite album of the year in that this record makes me want to use the word exquisite. It makes me think of words like beautiful and even meticulous. For such an organic and classic analog sound, it’s still so pristine… in the way that poets probably once wrote of pure art. (I guess. I’ve never read much poetry.) It’s the kind of album that demands and deserves a lot of attention. On Fanfare, singer/songwriter and underrated guitar whiz Jonathan Wilson reminds us of his extraordinary gifts as a producer. He was the man behind the boards for well-received albums in recent years by Dawes, Father John Misty, and Roy Harper… and now working for himself he allows his amazing songs to blossom beyond the Laurel Canyon laid back jam vibe and constructs an Album with a capital A. That deep shit that makes guys like me write this stuff singing their praises. His guitar tone. The deep sound he captures off the grand piano. His gift of voice. OK, I need to stop. Just know that this guy is making some very special music.

1. Portugal The Man – Evil Friends
For many years I stopped writing about music. Writing as a “Music Critic” for the student paper throughout high school and college had eventually turned me off for the obvious and predictable reasons. Why are we trying to describe music? Who are we to decide what’s “good” when music is so subjective? And then when albums like Evil Friends would come out from bands like Portugual The Man, I would try to rewrite some form of disclaimer about how it’s silly for us to try to explain what something sounds like. I cant tell you who or what Portugal The Man sounds like. (In fact, their real name is Portugal. The Man, with that period in the middle. Probably just to piss off people like me who write about music. Everyone hates music critics.) But I can tell you that this album is awesome. It might seem a little weird at first, but it’s a grower.

I won’t tell you how to listen to it… or on what platform… just listen. You wont be able to stop.

November 7, 2013 / Jaded Bitterman

Interview With TrampStamp Record’s Mick Longstein

As I enter TrampStamp Record’s downtown New York City office building I am immediately greeted by a man named Bruno. Bruno is well dressed, in his early 30’s, slender, and fit. He’s wearing a $3000 Armani suit. Black. He is wearing Ray Ban aviators inside the building. A little wire is dangling off his ear and down the side of his neck. He leans his head to his left and speaks to his shoulder.

“He’s here.”

Pause.

“Ok.” he says to his shoulder.

“Follow me.”

One awkward elevator ride later I am sitting in the waiting room of a posh multi-million office decorated with hallways of gold records, photos of famous musicians, and one fantastic gold plated door that leads to the office of the man who made all of it possible. That man is none other than the legendary Mick Longstein.

Bruno leads me in.

“How you doin?” Mr. Longstein asks.

“I’m good, how are you Mr. Longstein?”

“Please, please. Call me Mick. This ain’t no Wall Street bank aight?”

Moments later, after some small talk and the usual pleasantries I am finally able to get to the reason I am here: to interview a master of the arts.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did TrampStamp Records get its start?
Mick Longstein: 
When I was about 18 years old a few of my associates and myself took over a little night club in Brooklyn. Well, once we had it up and runnin’ we need somethin’ to, you know, draw the people from the neighborhood in to start spending their hard earned cash..with us. I had a cousin who started a little rock and roll/do wop outfit, The Dick Ritchie Valens Quartet, so we booked ’em to play 7 nights a week, 6 shows a night. Well, a few years later and we got all this cash flowing through the club but, you know, we ain’t gonna play Uncle Sam any of that cut. So we started a, umm, a subsidiary. Yea. That’s it. And we figured, hey, let’s expand our empire into this music business. So we started TrampStamp Records.

Let me get this straight, so TrampStamp Records was originally a front? A place to launder your cash?
ML: Hey buddy, who said anythin’ about laundering money huh? I got no fuckin’ clue what you mean by that. Next question!

Ok. Who was the first artist you signed?
ML: Let me think about that one, cause, you know, my memory ain’t too good no more. You know, it was Blue Lou Boyd & The Chesterfields.

Who had the big hit “Am I Lying?”
ML: Yea, that was a big hit for sure. We made our first million off a that one. I bought my first wife a mink coat with those proceeds.

Read more…

August 24, 2013 / Todd.Levinson.Frank

Three Crazy Snubs From Grantland’s Best Song of the Millennium Contest

Grantland has posted a “Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium,” formatted as a tournament bracket of course, culling 64 songs for all of us to vote on. I’m still an album guy, so “singles” and playlists are not really my thing. I can admit to being just old enough that I haven’t heard of a good chunk of the songs they picked, and that’s okay, I’m not in tune with all The Big Hits or whatever moves the radio dial these days.

I’m less concerned about what made Grantland’s list than what was snubbed: 3 of the songs that I would probably pick if I had to pick just the 5-10 best songs of the millennium, “Seven Nation Army” (The White Stripes), “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley), and “Welcome to Jamrock” (Damian Marley). I’m sure narrowing the last 13 or so years down to 64 potential “Best” songs was a daunting task. So much so that they’ve already posted a reaction to the reaction: 20+ more songs they acknowledge shoulda-coulda made the list. Only “Seven Nation Army” made their “songs that just missed the cut” list, “Crazy” and “Jamrock” were snubbed there too.

From Grantland’s Mark Lisanti:

Not to pull back the curtain on our selection process… but “Seven Nation Army” bit the dust because of the dreaded “marching band penalty.” You know: If you can play it at midfield with tubas and French horns and socially awkward people in hats that have that weird strap that hangs down below the nose, it can’t possibly be a good song. It’s a Jock Jam. It’s halftime entertainment.

That’s sound reasoning if you want to vote against it once the tournament starts, but there’s 64 (SIXTY-FOUR!) slots… how do you not include this song ?

Read more…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,582 other followers