Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Recap: The Best of 2015

Social media fueled our nostalgia in 2015, which explains why so many of the new songs on this list sound distinctly like 1980's & 1990's throwbacks. Between #tbt and Buzzfeed Rewind, a myriad of tv show reboots (Full House, The X Files, 24, Boy Meets World), and the resurgence of 90's fashion, not much escaped the influence of the past. Then again, I'm not complaining if today's musicians want to take a few lessons from decades past.

10. The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"

Ominous and haunting but joyous at the same time, this song held a special place in my heart during 2015. First, I saw The Weeknd perform it with Taylor Swift at her epic concert in the Meadowlands in July. A stadium of 70,000 fans dancing with LED bracelets blinking in unison to the beat was ultimately perfect. Second, I was at the taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon when Tom Cruise won the Lip Sync Battle with his awesome rendition of "Can't Feel My Face". This song was unescapable and who would want to escape the closest thing we'll get to a resurrection of Michael Jackson? This could have been released in 1984 and it would have been a massive hit. And that's the sign of a true pop masterpiece.

And I know she'll be the death of me, at least we'll both be numb
And she'll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come
All the misery was necessary when we're deep in love

9. Brandon Flowers - "Can't Deny My Love"

Everything comes back into style someday, and the trend in vogue this year was 80's new wave - Psychedelic Furs, OMD, Dead Or Alive - a synthpop for the new century. The beat could have been recorded on a Casio and the song could have been played on a Walkman, tinny through felt-padded headphones. The song is heavy with Biblical imagery, the lingering effects of a Mormon upbringing, Peter denying Jesus three times and weeping with bitter tears at the realization of the betrayal.

When you close your eyes, tell me what you see.
Locked up in your room is there any room for me?
In the spoils of your mercy
In the reverence of your bed
In the cradle of the morning
What was it that you said?

8. One Direction - "Love You Goodbye"

It's as if MTV's parody boy band 2Gether released a song with a Backstreet Boys earnestness.. The song is on the border of ridiculous with its lyrics about  "I know there's nothing I can do to change it /  But is there something that can be negotiated?" trying to charm an ex into bed for 'one last goodbye'. It's a ultimate guilty pleasure song.

Oh, why you're wearing that to walk out of my life? (Hey, hey, hey)
Oh, even though it's over you should stay tonight (Hey, hey, hey)
If tomorrow you won't be mine
Won't you give it to me one last time?

7. Charli XCX featuring Rita Ora, "Doing It"

Charli's album "Sucker" might just be the best Brit-pop album since the Spice Girls invented Girl Power.  Cut through with a 90s aesthetic and a modern edge, "Doing It" should be an anthem for any girl who's still living in 1996. Both the original and the remixed version featuring Rita Ora are examples of what pop should sound like in 2015.

Locked inside my veins you're in my blood, in my blood
And we united forevermore
We're staying all night, we never slow down
I think we better do it like we're doing it now

6. Ed Sheeran - "Thinking Out Loud"

Ed won me over this year; I have to admit "X" is a brilliant album, sonically adventurous and original. There is no denying this song could be a perfect first dance wedding song (and I've seen it!) and somehow it manages to transcend cloying. "Thinking Out Loud" lands solidly in the classic love song category; something about it is timeless

'Cause, honey, your soul could never grow old, it's evergreen
And, baby, your smile's forever in my mind and memory
I'm thinking 'bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe it's all part of a plan

5. Kelly Clarkson - "Piece By Piece"

The best track on Kelly's latest album features the sort of earnest songwriting that simultaneously elevates and destroys. The first verse leads the listener to believe it's about a lover, then Kelly zeroes in on the abandonment that only parents can bestow on their children, the gift that was never wanted. This song is a master class in songwriting: a scathing indictment of her estranged father and a love letter to her husband and daughter. A powerhouse vocal that is even more heartbreaking live.

Piece by piece I fell far from the tree
I would never leave her like you left me
She will never have to wonder her worth
Because unlike you I'm gonna put her first

4. Fall Out Boy - "Uma Thurman"

To everyone who ruled out Fall Out Boy after their 2009 breakup/hiatus, the band proved their naysayers wrong with their 2015 album American Beauty/American Psycho. It's by far one of their best and works start to finish in a cohesive way. It was hard for me to pick a favorite track off this album to include on this list ("Irresistible" [both the Demi Lovato featured version and the original], "Jet Pack Blues", "Fourth Of July", "Novocaine" would all deserve the spot). But I chose "Uma Thurman" because of its chart success (double platinum) and the way it marries The Munsters theme song with a handclap beat and staccato lyrics.

The blood, the blood, the blood of the lamb
Is worth two lions, but here I am
And I slept in last night’s clothes and tomorrow’s dreams
But they’re not quite what they seem

3. Lauren Alaina - "Next Boyfriend"

It's such a shame that the songs on Lauren's 2011 debut CD Wildflower were so paint-by-the-numbers, as the singles she's released since have been clever tongue-twisters in the vein of Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert. In a perfect world, she'd knock the bro-country hacks (e.g. Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt) off the country charts and take over arenas. "Next Boyfriend"

It's driving me crazy where I’ve seen you before
Maybe it's the white t-shirt that you're wearing
The danger in your eyes or your fingers in your hair
It's a pretty small town, it's coming to me now
Whoa, I just figured it out
You look a lot like my next boyfriend
I can't believe how much you act like him
You and me, we'd be unbelievable
And I'm available

2. Taylor Swift - "Wildest Dreams"

 "Wildest Dreams" is the most adult of all of Taylor's songs, a hint at a possible future direction in her lyrics.The heartbeat echoes the pounding heart of the girl on the passenger side. Slow and languid, building to a frenzy "burning it down", both a plea and a promise. Faded pages and nostalgia, ambitious and yearning, dancing in headlights in a fog.

I said, "No one has to know what we do"
His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room
And his voice is a familiar sound,
Nothing lasts forever but this is getting good now

1. Kitten - "I'll Be Your Girl"

The epic in the arcane, twinkling prom lights across a sea of faces, the love that only a 16 year old can express. A mix of Concrete Blonde, "Metro" by Berlin, OMD's "If You Leave", 70's Swedish disco, and 80's new wave. A song that wholeheartedly deserves the label of "spectacular", and even more so because the band's front woman is talented beyond the measure of it at just 18 years old.

I'll be the connection between you and God 
I'll be your foundation I'll be a mirage 
I'll be there in summer I'll be there in rain 
I'll be the lie that's erased from your brain 
I'll be there to love, I will be there to hate 
I'll be the anchor that ties you to fate

Honorable Mentions:
* Adam Lambert, "Ghost Town"
* Twenty One Pilots, "Tear In My Heart"
* Prince Royce with Jennifer Lopez & Pitbull, "Back It Up"
* Meghan Trainor, "Dear Future Husband"
* Carrie Underwood, "Dirty Laundry"
* Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson, "Uptown Funk"

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Save Rock & Roll: The Perils of Rock in 2015

Rock is dead. Long live rock 'n roll.

Those two dichotomies have existed since Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis but they're even truer now. A "generation lost in space", looking for the next rock n roll hero to lead us out of the recession and into happier times, times before parents' basements and tax returns and the unemployment seminar. We're looking, and we keep looking...

Artists like Nikki Sixx implore us to keep our ears open to new rock music, to give new generations a chance. Sixx straddles the line between old and new: as the bassist of Motley Crue since 1981, he knows what it means to live through changing rock trends. But it's clear to most Sixx fans that Nikki's heart lies with his newer band, Sixx A.M. - a band from a completely different sonicsphere than Motley. Sixx A.M. has more of a pop sensibility, a theatricality in tone, thoughtfulness in lyrics, in stark contrast to Motley's in-your-face brand of sex, drugs, and hedonism.

If a true rock star like Sixx can evolve, doesn't that speak to a promising future for rock 'n roll? In the words of Jake Barnes, "isn't it pretty to think so"?

Truth is, rappers are the new rock stars. The concept of a "rock star" has changed, even become laughable, in the era of anonymous, homogenized rock music. (See: Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, anyone who is not Adam Levine in Maroon 5). The oversize egos and hedonistic excess of the past seem quaint today.

The disc jockeys who once threw records on of their own choosing, the "you-just-have-to-hear-this" urgency, the room for personal expression - all are relics of days gone by. Radio stations in 2015 resemble a computer: programmed with the same 30 songs across the country, the robot voice of Ryan Seacrest booming out across the land to announce the pre-selected Top 20 countdown.

It's undeniable that the ClearChannel/iHeartMedia conglomerate isn't exactly rock-friendly. Their beyond-clueless list of the songs they banned from radio play after September 11th, 2001 shows how tone-deaf they are to anything music related. (Seriously? "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? "American Pie"? "St. Elmo's Fire [Man In Motion]"???) With iHeartMedia owning thousands of radio stations nationwide, how is modern rock music supposed to find a toehold in 2015?

It might be better to turn to streaming chart data to see what rock music people are actually listening to - taking it to the people directly and examining what they listen to on their computers and mobile devices. The most recent Billboard Rock Digital Chart shows a compelling story. Eleven out of 50 songs could be found on vinyl before they were ever released digitally: "Sweet Child O'Mine", "Don't Stop Believin'", "Smells Like Teen Spirit". In 2015, nostalgia extends beyond the 1990's.

So this is the part of the piece where I'm supposed to conclude with a solution - proffer up an offering to our culture, pay lip service to the idea that we can form a grassroots movement to change the music industry, that we can take on all the monopoly conglomerates (see: Live Nation, Ticketmaster, iHeartMedia, Apple, Beats, Spotify) and win. I'm supposed to end on a high note. "The future of music is in our hands."

It's not that easy. The solution can't be found in 140 characters or blind fervor.

The good news is the void exists.

Now we need someone to fill it. And we'll continue to wait.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

David Cook Live at The Ridgefield Playhouse - Feb. 11, 2015

David Cook at The Ridgefield Playhouse - February 11, 2015

Ridgefield Playhouse is a small venue of just 500 seats, with the proverbial "not a bad seat in the house". It's the kind of place where things can get a bit sleepy; most shows are acoustic sets. Not the case at last night's show - Season 7 American Idol winner David Cook encouraged the crowd to stand and most of them stood through the whole show. 

American Idol is the place where David got his start in 2008, making history as the first Idol winner to play his guitar on the show. While the use of a guitar on Idol has devolved into a crutch for the contestants, Cook truly warranted the instruments - he is an excellent guitarist and pianist. He captured attention with slowed-down, haunting covers of "Billie Jean" and Lionel Richie's "Hello", but proved his versatility with hard rock covers of Beatles songs "Eleanor Rigby" and "Daytripper". He was saddled with one of the last true Idol coronation song hits "The Time Of My Life", which was lyrically cheesy yet respectable. 

Cook has only released 2 albums, 2008's eponymous album and 2011's This Loud Morning, but has released a pair of amazing singles ("Laying Me Low", "The Last Song I'll Write For You") in the past 2 years. He also has stayed true to his Idol roots by releasing a few cover tunes (his cover of "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds was the official American Idol exit credit song in 2011). 

David Cook is the rare rockstar who comes off as approachable yet untouchable in his talent. There is no artifice apparent in any moment of his show. He's an affable guy who humored the audience by responding to catcalls - it's the familiarity that such a small venue allows. He held the audience's attention from the front row to the balcony. 

His voice is captivating and just as strong as it sounds on the record. 

Cook's back catalog may only encompass 2 albums, but it's full of rich, gorgeous songs that would have translated well to the live stage. I would have loved to hear "The Last Song I'll Write For You" and "Eyes On You" rather than such a cover-heavy setlist. 4 covers in one concert is a lot by any standard, but especially for an artist with more than one album.

Cook makes it look effortless, a consummate performer and entertainer in an age of Auto-Tune and Dr. Luke.

Paper Heart
Heroes (w/Champagne Supernova)
Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
I Did It for You
The Last Goodbye
Laying Me Low
Fade Into Me
Wicked Game (Chris Isaak cover)
Kiss and Tell
Clocks (Coldplay cover)
I'm Gonna Love You
Come Back To Me
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson cover)
Light On
Wait For Me

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Year End Recap: The Best Of 2014

2014 was the year I went to 16 concerts and met one of my life-long heroes.

I  got my wish granted with a 3-disc "Super Deluxe Edition" of Bon Jovi's best album, 1988's New Jersey, featuring all the outtakes that would have been on the double-album "Sons of Beaches" if only for that damn record company. I cried hearing the songs I'd only ever heard in 96 kbps quality from MP3s I'd downloaded in 2001.

And hey, the music released this year didn't suck either.

10. Fall Out Boy - "Centuries"

Tailor made for an arena, with handclaps and a thundering chorus. Black and gold and a new found confidence in Pete Wentz's operatic lyrics. The slightest of snarls behind Patrick Stump's fovever youthful voice. Giving the mummified dreams of late 20-somethings a song to sink their teeth into.

The only reason I'm ranking this song at #10 is because it only found its way into my everyday playlist in the last month or so of 2014. Had it been released earlier in the years, we might have been talking about a Top 5 finish. The sample of "Tom's Diner" originally by Suzanne Vega (which hit big in 1990 with a remix - '90's nostalgia has been an undercurrent of popular music all year), but interestingly the band chose to re-record the sample with a new singer.

Mummified my teenage dreams
No, it's nothing wrong with me
The kids are all wrong
The story's all off
Heavy metal broke my heart

9. Maddie & Tae - "Girl In A Country Song"

A clever send-up of the bro-country trend that might have been the proverbial nail in the coffin for this young country duo. Much has been said about the difficulty that female country artists have breaking through in the industry these days, however these girls killed it with their debut single and garnered a lot of attention from the media for their fearlessness in confronting the female stereotypes in country music (see: Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, and ESPECIALLY Florida-Georgia Line). Of course all these male country acts are popular for good reasons - they are great performers and entertainers, and their songs are catchy as hell. However, if I hear one more song that is only about beer, girls, and this point it just seems as though the party anthem centric lyrics of pop music (see: Kesha, Pitbull, Pitbull featuring Kesha) have simply moved over to country music. That's why this song is so refreshing and innovative at this point. Kudos to these girls for showing sass in their breakthrough and showing the boys how it's done.

8. Fifth Harmony - "Bo$$"

This song will be almost instantly outdated in a year or two, with its references to Michelle Obama, Oprah, the "nae nae", "bae", "thirstin'", Kanye West, and Ray J. We'll look back on this song fondly as part of the halycon days of 2014 (whatever that means). Just try to resist. You can't. I know.

7. Ed Sheeran - "Don't"

The kind of tongue-twisting, lyrically-specific acoustic-y hit that is one in a million. Supposedly inspired by Ellie Goulding cheating on Sheeran with Niall from One Direction, or a soap opera of hot young British singers.

6. Iggy Azelea & Charli XCX - "Fancy"

This song was everywhere in 2014, in no small part due to its clever video homage to Clueless. That perfectly played on our 90's nostalgia while firmly digging its toes into 2014. A monstrous hook courtesy of Charli XCX. Getting drunk on the minibar and playing Suck & Blow never sounded so good.

5. Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood - "Somethin' Bad"

Billed as one of the biggest country duets of the year. Miranda and Carrie are arguably the two most popular female singers in country music. I have to admit the first time I listened to this duet it didn't grab me. Until it did. And until it usurped songs I've had for years on my Top 25 Most Played list. A spitfire, rapid, rabid chorus and a stomp along beat.

4. Walk The Moon - "Shut Up And Dance"

One part The Killers, one part Neon Trees, with a sprinkling of Duran Duran and 80's new wave. This Free Song Of The Week on iTunes soon found a home on my Top 25 Most Played list.

3. Neon Trees - "Sleeping With A Friend"

Choosing to wait for the next train at the 90's nostalgia station, Neon Trees rejected the trend and went straight back to the 1980's. All day-glo optimism, new wave keyboards, synthesizers, keytars, and a cotton-candy chorus. Resistance is futile.

2. Sia - "Chandelier"

The proverbial breath of fresh air in a musical wasteland of Dr. Luke rejects. The brutal flip side of the party anthem, when the party goes on too long and the tears run hot with Everclear. The most unlikely pop hit of 2014. Under the blurry veneer, the pain of a thousand jagged knives runs through Sia's delivery.

1. Taylor Swift - "Style"

The best song, hands down, off Taylor's already-classic 1989 album. The album, in just about 2 months of release, overtook the Frozen soundtrack to be the best selling album of 2014. A slick, gorgeous, aching story between two people who know they're better off alone but can't resist. A speeding car with no headlights, driving to nowhere fast. The sound of Taylor Swift solidifying her place in music history.

[Note: For those of you under a rock, Taylor removed all her music from Spotify and YouTube except for her official Vevo channel, so below I've posted the link to a fabulous mashup of "Blank Space" and "Style" by Louisa Wendorff.]

I say I heard that you been out and about with some other girl
Some other girl
He says, what you've heard it's true
But I can't stop thinking about you and I
I said I've been there too a few times

Honorable Mentions
* Cold War Kids - "First"

* Taylor Swift - "Wildest Dreams"
* Jessie J, Ariana Grande, & Nicki Minaj - "Bang Bang"
* Meghan Trainor - "Lips Are Movin'"
* Echosmith - "Cool Kids"
* Enrique Iglesias - "Bailando"
* Jessica Meuse - "Blue Eyed Lie"