Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Year In Review: 2016

The Year In Review: 2016 

The 19th anniversary of my Year in Review finds us at a crossroads. Most of us will agree that we wish we could undo 2016 as a year. We lost so much at the hands of this trash fire year, especially musically. The most notable (and terrible) musician deaths of the year included David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Glenn Frey of The Eagles. Despite it all, we were blessed with some incredible albums and songs - proving that amongst the ashes, some beauty remained.

10. Joey Cook & the Partyraddlers – “Bones”

A shockingly unique song in a world of carbon copy songs. There's elements of indie rock with Americana folk, a gothic song with a sense of dread. Lead singer Joey Cook had an impressive run on American Idol in 2015, making it to the Top 6 with quirky covers of "Fancy" (Iggy Azalea) and "King Of Spain" (The Tallest Man on Earth). Recently she's sang with Postmodern Jukebox, but if this is any indication, it's her solo material that will be the true standout. 

9. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”

An absolute love letter to 70's disco, 80's funk, 90's R&B, and a little 00's pop. Songs this reminds me of (in no particular order): the disco glam of "Upside Down" (Diana Ross), modern throwback by way of "Slow Jamz" (Twista, Kanye West, Jamie Foxx), the funky "Word Up" (Cameo), perfect pop like "Senorita" (Justin Timberlake), and throw in a hint of Michael Jackson ("Bad"). 

This song is infectious and happy and we will all be putting our pinkie rings up to the moon for eternity. No doubt we will be listening to this at weddings for decades to come along with "Blurred Lines", "Uptown Funk", "I've Gotta Feeling", and "Can't Stop The Feeling. Mark my words.

8. Metallica – “Moth Into Flame”

Both elegy and eulogy - this cautionary tale describes the life and inevitable destruction of a young starlet. The lyrics bring to mind Amy Winehouse more so than her blonde partying peers, as the conclusion of the song finds the young girl dead and the media machine moved on to the next one. 

If a Metallica song could ever be called "catchy", here it is, but it's still just as heavy as you'd expect. This should be massive live in concert. If this doesn't find major success on the Modern Rock chart, I don't know what would. [Oh wait, I do. This song has only peaked at #15 and is behind Coldplay, Lil Wayne, and multiple songs by the Lumineers.]

7. Adele – “Water Under The Bridge”

Powerful but lovely, triumphant but sad, despair and desperation, but sung with a sure-footed sense of self-worth. The obvious choice is "Hello" or "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" but this song resonated with me far more. This was certainly Adele's year with a massive sold-out tour including 6 nights at Madison Square Garden. I was lucky enough to get a ticket - for face value, no less - and witness this song live. 

Photo taken by me - Sept, 26, 2016 - Madison Square Garden

6. Disclosure f. Lorde – “Magnets”

I have a special affinity for this song, as I think it deserves a place on my self-curated Less Than Zero book soundtrack. Cigarette smoke and carelessness off Sunset. Smudged eyeliner and a diner at 3 AM, quaaludes and beauty gone bad. Just a hint of youthful yearning amongst the nihilism and the inner knowledge of an outsider gone quiet. One of my most played songs of the year.

5. Halsey – “Colors”

Urgently independent and driving, the poetry of the lyrics is what makes "Colors" stand out in a crowded musical landscape. It lends itself to being interpreted like poetry in  a way that most repetitive songs can never be. It's ripped jeans you can't fit into anymore and what's left when infidelity fades. It's not wanting to hope for the future if it's just going to be this way. Halsey's entire album Badlands is beautifully cohesive, flirting with the edge of pop but always dipping a toe in deeper waters.

You were a vision in the morning when the light came through

I know I've only felt religion when I've lied with you
You said you'll never be forgiven till your boys are too
And I'm still waking every morning, but it's not with you

You're dripping like a saturated sunrise

You're spilling like an overflowing sink
You're ripped at every edge but you're a masterpiece
And now I'm tearing through the pages and the ink

4. Pink – “Just Like Fire”

A feminist anthem that's not explicitly so - a little bit 00's girl power with a rasp of modernity and an unbridled power. Pink has never received the kind of accolades that she should - even with her strings of hit singles, she still comes off as the underdog and it works. 

3. Britney Spears – “Liar”

The closest thing to Carrie Underwood's brand of country that Britney's ever approached. All high-heeled red leather boots and gritted teeth, it's a country song that's perfect for any workout mix. Britney's semi-surprise album Glory was glorious (sorry) from start to finish and her best songs since 2011's Femme Fatale. A close runner up to "Liar" is the soda-pop sex-fizz of "Do You Wanna Come Over", also worth checking out.

2. Keith Urban – “Wasted Time”

From the first listen of this song, I knew it would be in my Top 10. It's all the perfection of being 17 and driving to nowhere. The journey is the destination and the soundtrack is Guns 'N Roses and it feels like there will never be anything more than this. There was no better song to blare while driving my boat across the lake this summer. Nostalgia was never so bitter nor so sweet.

1. Sing Street Soundtrack – “Drive It Like You Stole It”

This is the most perfect pop song EVER WRITTEN. EVER. Endless optimism that flirts with the edge of cheesy. It's a little Hall & Oates, throw in a dash of Modern English and Berlin, and a little bit of "Send Me An Angel" by Real Life. It's the "Pretty In Pink" prom scene if Andie had ended up with Duckie - they would have danced to this song, trust me - searching for the epic amongst the arcane. 

Sing Street is director/songwriter John Carney's latest film in a pseudo-trilogy along with Once and Begin Again. There are two versions of the song on the soundtrack: the movie version by the movie's 16 year old star Ferdia-Walsh Peelo or the more-polished and poppy version by Hudson Thames. Both are sublime perfection. If you like any of the following - Ireland, the 80's, new wave music, realistic coming-of-age stories, and the agony and ecstacy of being a teenager - go see this movie immediately and come back and tell me about it.

You just can't stand the way that I walked out from the wreckage
Can't understand the way that I turned myself around
I tried to terminate this war with you
But you won't let it go, you keep coming back for more

Freedom - I'm takin' it back
I'm outta here, no turnin' back
In a baby blue Cadillac
Just when I was stallin, I heard an angel callin'

This is your life - you can go anywhere
You gotta grab the wheel and own it
And drive it like you stole it
Roll it
This is your life - you can be anything
You gotta learn to rock and roll it
You gotta put the pedal down
And drive it like you stole it

Honorable Mentions
Bon Jovi - "This House Is Not For Sale"
After too many largely forgettable albums (The Circle, What About Now), no cohesively solid album since 2007's country record Lost Highway, and Richie Sambora's departure, Bon Jovi was definitely in need of a strong lead-off single for their new album and this is it. Is it yet another kiss-off to the record company? Is it a scolding of Richie? Or is it just a metaphor for integrity in a world where everything has a monetary value? It's made for a stadium singalong and my heart.

Demi Lovato - "Stone Cold"

For me, this song was beautifully brought to life on Dancing With The Stars as the soundtrack to an absolutely killer routine by professional fighter Paige Van Zant and her dancing partner Mark Ballas. Aching, gorgeous, and brutal – just like every breakup song should be.

Kris Allen – “Faster Shoes"
This song has a little more bite than most of Kris’s acoustic numbers – a little bit lovestruck, just a little bit menacing. Kris Allen is nothing if not consistently authentic – I’ve seen him live about 5 times, including twice this year – and this song was the standout for me on this year’s new record Letting You In.

Little Mix – “Shout Out To My Ex”

A classic girl group kiss-off that’s just a little bit too repetitive to make my Top 10. The verses are Destiny’s Child-lite, while the bubblegum chorus brings to mind the Spice Girls. And a song I had a particular affinity for this year. (Hi boo, I know you’re reading this!)

Machine Gun Kelly & Camila Cabello - "Bad Things"

Whoever thought a rap/pop song could sample "Out Of My Head" by Fastball and end up this mind-numbingly catchy? Sweet and sour, good and bad, light and dark - it shouldn't work but it does. Also known as the song that broke up Fifth Harmony, but man, was it 'worth it'.

Nick Jonas – “Bacon”
Who could have predicted in 2008 that Nick Jonas would be the next Justin Timberlake? Both shaved their curls and revealed six pack abs, an affinity for Jodeci and 90’s R&B bedroom jams, and released some killer singles. A killer ode to being unapologetically single.

Rihanna – “Love On The Brain”
I didn’t know Rihanna had this song in her, honestly. The swooning doo-wop of the Supremes meets Macy Gray, with a vocal as beautiful as it is ugly-raw.

Riley Biederer – “Thunder"
A paint-by-numbers pop song with just enough swag to stand out. Just try to resist its charm. I’ve probably played this song a hundred times this year.

Worst of The Year

Coldplay – “Adventure of A Lifetime”
This song makes me want to punch someone. Enough said. The “woo-woos” are especially violence-inducing.

DRAM & Lil Yachty – “Broccoli”
Broccoli is my favorite vegetable so I was hopeful for this song. Sadly, it is not about food but about marijuana. Also any song that references Metro PCS, Hulk Hogan, and Prego is just whack.

Desiigner – “Panda”
The fact that this was a #1 Billboard Hot 100 song this year makes me afraid for the future of music. Apparently this is about a BMW and not an actual panda. Thank god.

Lady Gaga - "Perfect Illusion"
Such a departure from her disco-glitter past or even her bleached-blonde-barstool stompers like "You and I". I couldn't get over how jaggedly unpleasing this song is to the ear.

Lukas Graham – “7 Years”
If I have to hear this inspid, emotionally pandering song one more time…and the astonishing thing is how many people fell for this. To those opening notes which sound like a mobile above an infant’s crib, to the references to smoking pot and drinking liquor at 11 years old, I literally can’t wait for the narrator to grow up and stop listing ages.
Nick Fradiani’s debut album “Hurricane"
I had high hopes for American Idol season 14 winner Nick Fradiani and bought his debut album unheard. It’s full of terrible clichés, poor songwriting, and musically daft songs. “Forget2ForgetU” is particularly egregious and the song title belongs on a 2Gether album from the year 2000. The standout song, besides his Chris Carraba co-written “Beautiful Life” Idol coronation song, is “Nobody”. But other than those 2 songs, a severely disappointing album.

Until next year, here's a Spotify playlist of all the Top 10 and runners up. Thankfully, I did not include the Worst of the Year!

Concerts I attended in 2016

March 3: Adam Lambert ~ Terminal 5
March 6: David Cook ~ The Warehouse at FTC
March 12: Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys ~ Playstation Theater
April 8: Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (Steve Miller Band, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, NWA, Chicago) ~ Barclays Center (FREE tickets!)
April 16: Kris Allen ~ Gramercy Theater
April 20: The Mowglis ~ The Space (FREE tickets!)
April 25: Bruce Springsteen ~ Barclays Center
May 18: Sebastian Bach ~ BB Kings
May 24: Scott Stapp ~ Ridgefield Playhouse (FREE tickets!)
June 16: Dashboard Confessional & Taking Back Sunday ~ Oakdale Theater
June 22: Haley Reinhart ~ Gramercy Theater
July 14: Hanson ~ Alive @ Five, Stamford Downtown
July 23: Guns N Roses ~ Metlife Stadium
August 6: Nick Fradiani ~ Milford Mall (FREE tickets!)
August 23: Bruce Springsteen ~ Metlife Stadium
August 30: Bruce Springsteen ~ Metlife Stadium
September 2-3: Blues Views & BBQ Festival ~ Levitt Pavillion (FREE tickets!)
September 26: Adele ~ Madison Square Garden
September 30: Taking Back Sunday ~ Irving Plaza
October 17: Brand New ~ Oakdale Theater
October 20: Bon Jovi ~ Barrymore Theater
November 12: Kris Allen ~ Danbury Mall (FREE tickets!)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

More Than A Concert: Bruce Springsteen @ MetLife Stadium

What did I do to deserve this?

Said with wonder, it’s inspiring. Said with defeat, it’s wallowing. I took the former for two sultry nights in August, two states away with an open heart. In a summer of despair, I needed to prove I deserved the space I’d chiseled for myself in this world. Solitude and reflection are no match for the comfort of a hand to hold, but there are still moments of fireworks among the ashes. 

The River Tour, the swamps of Jersey, a 66 year old man and his band. It was the first time I can remember that I openly wept at a concert, without shame and without doubt. “Something In The Night” – the story of a man who would rather drive all night than face the emptiness of his life. “The River” – so much youthful promise and the weight of responsibility that drowns without sympathy. “Living Proof” – birth and rebirth, the fragility of life, and miracles in the dust. “Independence Day” – the startling realization of the dreams of parents before their children, wistful and resigned, bridges that can neither be mended nor burned. 

You're born with nothing
And better off that way
Soon as you've got something they send
Someone to try and take it away
You can ride this road 'til dawn
Without another human being in sight
Yeah, just kids wasted on
Oh, something in the night

Much has been written of the spiritual atmosphere at Bruce’s shows, and with good reason. There is baptism in the dirt, there is reconciliation for the outlaws, there is the hope etched in stone in this hard land. Transcendence, love is a state of grace, and the realization that there are no saints, no sinners, but people clawing to stay alive in a world of decay. The mundane is miraculous and the epic is arcane. Neither church nor school gave me the community I discovered at a concert venue. 

Four precious hours that unite generations. Children sleep on their parents’ hearts, gentlemen with white hair take photos on their flip phones, twenty-somethings with American flag bandanas crush Bud Light cans under sneakers, the 50 year old faithfuls with a hundred shows under their leather belts. No gimmicks, no costumes, no artifice. 

I found ferocity in those electric guitars, certainty in a steady drum beat, joyous abandon in a saxophone, artistic beauty in piano keys. The gravel in Bruce’s voice is grounding; it is wisdom and experience that never forgot the struggles of youth. 

Or as one lady says, calm certainty in her voice, at the end of “Lost In The Flood” live from MetLife on August 25th, “everybody just witnessed the face of Jesus. That is fucking it. That is Bruce at his best.”

With wonder: what did I do to deserve this?

Just one kiss from you my brother
And we'll ride until we fall
We'll sleep in the fields
We'll sleep by the rivers and in the morning
We'll make a plan
Well if you can't make it
Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive
If you can
And meet me in a dream of this hard land

All photos by Meghan Muldowney - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band @ MetLife Stadium August 23rd & 25th, 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

American Idol Season 15: April 6, 2016

Finale Performance Night – April 6, 2016

Round 1: Winner’s Single

1.   Trent Harmon – “Falling”   B
It’s always tough to judge a winner’s single – comparing it to more than a decade of winner’s singles before it, both high points (“The Time Of Our Lives”, “A Moment Like This”) and low points (“No Boundaries, “As Long As You Love Me”). This song didn’t grab me as much on first listen as I hoped it would, but overall, in a general sense, I liked the lyrics and Trent’s vocals. The lyrics to this song are very very sexy and I’m not sure that Trent brought that element of it to light. The best part of it was Trent’s falsetto run at the end of the song.

2.   Dalton Rapattoni – “Strike A Match”  C+
The studio version of this is light years better than the live version, but the song suffers from lyrical clichés: “rolling thunder”, “caught in the rain”, “dancing in the dark”, “start a fire”. It sounds like a Boys Like Girls outtake from 2009. That’s not an insult, just the truth. The guitar sounds too fast for the vocals and the whole thing just isn’t my favorite. Was it the sound mix that was off or Dalton’s mumbly, unintelligible vocals? It’s unfortunate that this was Dalton’s last performance on the Idol stage; he had so many more that were exciting, unexpected, and vocally strong.

3.   La’Porsha Renae – “Battles”  B+
Of the 3 Winner’s Singles, La’Porsha’s has the strongest hook/chorus combo, in that I was singing it after the performance was over. Her vocals were strong, although it wasn’t her best vocal performance in comparison to some of her past songs (“Glory”, “Diamonds”, “Come Together”) La’Porsha’s song was the best match for her Idol Journey ™ - it spoke to rising over adversity and not only surviving, but thriving. I’m not sure that I see a place for any of the 3 Winner’s Singles on today’s iTunes charts but I think La’Porsha has the greatest chance for success with this.

Round 2: Simon Fuller's Choice

4. Trent Harmon – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Simply Red)  A/A-
Bring it home, Trent. As Randy would say, Trent is “in it to win it”. This was the first time in the night I got up off my couch and moved closer to the TV. This is one of the sweeping Vintage Idol type songs that’s meant to deliver a moment for the contestant. I love how Trent is so passionate about every lyric he sings. There is no artifice in this boy (well, ok, maybe on “Counting Stars”). He has such control of his voice but also the ability to sing with wild abandon; Trent demonstrated both of those talents on this song.

5.   La’Porsha Renae – “A House Is Not A Home” (Dionne Warwick)  B+
I’ve heard this song performed so many times – from Tamyra Gray to Jacob Lusk to Will & Emma dueting on Glee – and it’s never been my cup of tea. Of course La’Porsha can do the song justice, no question about it. She infused this song with too many runs for my taste, but she did leave me feeling the emotion of the lyric – a person in pain, hoping to repair a broken relationship.

Round 3: Contestant's Choice (Reprise)

6.   Trent Harmon – “Chandelier” (Sia)  A+
Trent stunned me with his interpretation of this Sia song the first time he sang it and he gave me chills the second time he sang it. In a lesser singer’s hands this could become just karaoke, or a party anthem, or a complete annihilation of the clever lyrics. But in Trent’s vocal chords, I found everything I had been looking for: the cavalier attitude, slow recognition, and full embracing. Sweet like honey, slow like molasses, woozy like whiskey: Sia’s beautiful song deserves a master class in interpretation to do it justice. And Trent more than excelled in it. For me for you, he’s been my Idol all season, my dark horse since he had to make Idol history by being the first person to compete solo during the Hollywood Week Group Round. If you can make it this far with mono, you can do anything.

7.   La’Porsha Renae – “Diamonds” (Rihanna)  A
There was no doubt in my mind that La’Porsha would select “Diamonds” as her reprise performance – and what a way to close out the very last performance finale of American Idol. Stunning melodic choices infused with a power that Rihanna’s version never had. Rihanna’s version is all speculation and laid-back promises, La’Porsha’s is fierce and instructive. There was a militaristic drumbeat in the background of the arrangement which drove the song to a more intense, deeper place. Even though Trent has been my guy all season, I can’t be upset if La’Porsha is our last American Idol – her voice is beyond gorgeous and her story is inspirational. What a finale!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

American Idol Season 15: March 31, 2016

Top 4 – Hometown Visits: March 31, 2016

1. Mackenzie Bourg – “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen) A-/B+
The more cynical will point to just how many times this song has been covered on Idol – Jason Castro, Lee DeWyze, Tim Urban –  and say that its popularity should prohibit its inclusion on the show. But this was a perfect song choice for Mackenzie, who sang Leonard Cohen’s classic like a lullaby. Mackenzie sang it in a Jack Johnson style - lilting, light, gentle – and beautiful.

2.  Dalton Rapattoni – “Calling You” (Blue October) B
A very smart decision by Dalton to pick a song he could truly make his own. It seemed a little bit of a left field choice at first but when Dalton highlighted the line “I can’t believe you actually picked me”, I got it. He came across as humble, self-effacing, and strategic. [Side note: Blue October is an incredibly underrated band and their 2006 minor hit “Hate Me” became a defining song of my college years.] Dalton may not have the strongest voice but he might just be the best performer of the season. He knows how to play to his strengths and to an audience.

3. Trent Harmon – “Tennesee Whiskey” (Chris Stapleton) A
Trent hasn’t had a misfire since his performance of “Counting Stars” and this wouldn’t break his streak. Smooth with a kick at the end, just like a glass of whiskey. His voice has such power but also such finesse, the ability to take an oft-covered song and truly add his own flavors.

4. LaPorsha Renae – “Glory” (Common & John Legend) A-
LaPorsha is not, and has never been, a singer who can just sing beautifully. She brings grit, passion, and overwhelming emotion to every song she sings – it’s a trait that most of our popular starts today lack. “Glory” was the perfect song choice for her.

5.  Dalton Rapattoni – “Dancing In The Dark” (Bruce Springsteen) A-
If only Dalton had kept the slowed down, aching arrangement the song started with. It devolved into a proto-pop-punk jam which was exhaustingly fun. However, I had been so excited to finally hear the song stripped down, highlighting the naked depression of the lyrics, that it disappointed me when the song kicked in to uptempo.

6. LaPorsha Renae – “Stay With Me Baby” (Lorraine Ellison) A
LaPorsha’s voice is so powerful it almost seems effortless at times. It’s important to remember that singing the way she does is unbelievably difficult. Maybe LaPorsha didn’t like this song’s lyrical content – and she’s entitled to her opinion – but she won’t necessarily feel a deep and honest connection to every song she’ll sing for the rest of her life. But someone listening will be moved and it’s her job to ensure they feel moved. And I absolutely was.

7.  Trent Harmon – “Drink You Away” (Justin Timberlake) B
Compared to Trent’s first performance, this one didn’t grab me. The music seemed too loud for his vocals and with two very similar songs, it was easy to draw comparisons between the performances instead of feeling like they were distinct entities. “Drink You Away” paled in comparison to “Tennesee Whiskey” – although Trent certainly poured a little shot of Justin Timberlake into his vocals. Then again, Trent is my favorite contestant this year and I’ve just listened to his studio version of “Drink You Away” on iTunes four times a row…and it’s growing on me, like a fungus.

8. Dalton Rapattoni – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (Tears For Fears) B/B-
Starting the performance admist the crowd immediately took the energy out of the performance. While thrilling, I’m sure for the audience members standing directly around him, it looks chaotic and messy on TV and probably didn’t play as well in the studio. Compare Dalton’s vocal take to Rayvon Owen’s smooth-as-butter version from last season and it didn’t quite hold up.

9.  LaPorsha Renae – “Hello” (Adele) A-/B+
This was set up to be an Idol Moment ™ but it underwhelmed just a little bit for me, for you. Maybe its because the song’s ubiquity has led me to only associate the song with Adele’s voice. Of course LaPorsha sang it beautifully but I wasn’t as entranced as I was by her previous 2 performances.

10.  Trent Harmon – “Waiting Game” (Parson James) A
The judges were spot on with this pick for Trent. I think picking an unknown song is always a risk – either the singer makes the song their own or they confuse the audience who’ve never heard the song before. Was there any doubt Trent would shine with this?