In Memoriam 2016: LxListening

2016 was not-so-great, and most pertinently here, it was the year the music died. Not only did we lose three stone-cold legends in David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, we also lost many more way too soon.  So below is a brief tribute to some of those we will miss the most as well as an In Memoriam playlist with some of my favorite songs from these artists.

Sharon Jones

No one in 2016 brought more joy and energy to the stage than Sharon Jones. The soul singer, backed by Brooklyn’s soul revue band the Daptones, was the face of relentless joy and perseverance. Jones’s musical career didn’t start until her 40’s, where before she worked as a correctional officer on Rikers Island. Over the last 15 years, Jones has provided a shot of happiness everywhere she performed, including the last three years where she continued to perform even as she recovered from pancreatic cancer. However, she finally lost her battle to pancreatic cancer after a stroke on Election night that deteriorated her health after that. The world became a little less bright after her loss.

Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest

One of the most influential rap groups of all-time lost their short, fierce, and clever MC Phife Dawg aka Malik Taylor. Phife died from diabetes during the making of their latest album We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, their first in 20 years and one of their best.

Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic and Talking Heads

A true musical pioneer and someone who expanded the role that keyboards and synthesizers play in rock music, Bernie Worrell wrote some of music’s most memorable keyboard riffs. From Parliament’s “Flashlight” and “Hit It and Quit It” to “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads, Bernie brought the funk everywhere he went.

Alan Vega of Suicide

For those that love experimental electronic music, Suicide are sort of their Velvet Underground, the band that launched a thousand bands. The electronic New York duo made apocalyptic, avant-garde music that sounded frightening and like nothing else around. Vega died this year at 78, but his legacy lives today more than ever: where electronic music is now at the forefront of popular and independent music.

George Martin, Legendary Beatles Producer

There’s been countless arguments over who the “fifth” Beatle is, whether it’s often collaborator Billy Preston, early members Stu Sutcliffe or Pete Best, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the answer is George Martin, who produced almost every Beatles song you and I know and love. Martin expanded the studio as an instrument, and was a big proponent of why rock and roll became art and not just something fun for teens to dance to.

Leonard Cohen

I’m not sure there was ever a more poetic and graceful songwriter than Leonard Cohen. Dylan was certainly a greater political and urgent songwriter, but no one wrote more gracefully about love and death than Cohen. He was never the singer that he was a songwriter, and strangely his deep, husky voice in his 80s worked better for his subjects of aging and death than in his earlier year’s. Cohen’s voice and music aged like a barrel of bourbon, and his legacy will probably do the same.

Prince

Until high school, I thought Prince was just a weird, creepy, androgynous dude. Then my friend and fellow LxLer Austin introduced me to Sign o’ the Times, Prince’s ambitious 1987 double-album, and it was all downhill from there. From the perfect pop masterpiece of Purple Rain (I can’t name many other albums that I wouldn’t change a thing about) which is the perfect medium between pop and experimental Prince, to his legendary live performances (which I sadly never got to experience in person), to his surprisingly entertaining if somewhat troubled films, Prince could do more than almost any other artist. He could sing, dance, perform, write, play almost any instrument masterfully, dress, produce, create films, and so much more. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more wholly talented musician.

David Bowie

Perhaps more than any other musician, David Bowie was a voice for the outcast. I think that’s a big reason you see so many artists today, likely outcasts in their youth, see Bowie as their biggest inspiration and hero. Bowie was also a true musical chameleon, releasing almost 50 years worth of a music, from a musical-inspired Space Oddity, to an electronic music pioneer on Low, Bowie tried on a number of characters and genres throughout his near 50-year career. At the very end, the Thin White Duke released a prophetic final statement on death and the afterlife with Blackstar two days before his passing from liver cancer. His legacy will live on from his music and the many Kooks that followed him.

For more songs we love from artists that passed in 2016, check out this In Memoriam Playlist.

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A Break from the Election Blues: LxListening

This election season couldn’t be over soon enough. This fall’s music has offered both a respite from the political ugliness and also has spoken straight to the urgency of it like the David Egger’s led 30 days for 30 songs now 40 songs in 40 days for a Trump-free America. Whether you are feeling righteous anger towards this election cycle, feeling existential and maybe a little hopeless, or just seeking some peace and quiet, this fall has delivered good music for all three. Here are a few of my favorites.

 

Amber Coffman – “All To Myself”

The eclectic Dirty Projectors have been one of my favorite bands in the last 10 years, and I’ve always thought their guitarist and co-vocalist Amber Coffman should split off for a solo career. She finally has here in 2016, with a solo album to come soon, but led by “All To Myself” a lovely mid-tempo ballad which isn’t a far cry from her sound in Dirty Projectors. The Dirty Projectors themselves are coming out with an album soon, and it appears based on their lead single, frontman Dave Longstreth doesn’t seem too pleased about Coffman going solo.

Moses Sumney – “Worth It”

LA’s Moses Sumney is one of the more refreshing up-and-coming artists today, mixing soul and folk in creative ways. A Sufjan Stevens touring mate and disciple, Sumney’s songwriting is similarly informed by his faith, with his debut EP Lamentations finding him wrestling with God, and lead single “Worth It” sort of being an open-hearted, auto-tuned confessional.

Jim James – “Same Old Lie”

My Morning Jacket’s Jim James’ musical heroes (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Roger Waters) have a knack for writing politically urgent yet timeless lyrics to fit their time and to last beyond. James strikes that balance well on his first single “Same Old Lie” for his upcoming second solo album Eternally Even, singing a Mayfield-esque protest against the hatred and violence that perpetrates our world.

Swet Shop Boys – “T5”

One of the most surprising new duos in music is Swet Shop Boys, which combines world-class British actor Rez Ahmed aka Rez MC (hot off starring in HBO’s stellar Night Of and soon to be star in Star Wars Rogue One) with Himanshu Kumar Suri aka Heems 1/3rd of goofball rap troupe Das Racist. What the two have in common is being of South Asian descent, with Heems being an Indian-American from Queens and Rez being a Pakistani-Brit from London. On “T5”, the two furiously and humorously break down what it’s like to be brown post 9/11, facing Islamophobia, xenophobia, government surveillance, racial profiling at the airport, and much more.

Nick Cave – “Skeleton Tree”

For those feeling straight-up existential and depressed this election, maybe wait to listen to Nick Cave’s latest Skeleton Tree until November 9th. While Skeleton Tree is certainly the saddest listen of 2016, it is also the most moving and human. In the summer of 2015, Cave experienced unbearable tragedy with the loss of his 15 year old son Arthur who fell of a cliff to his death while on LSD. This happened in the middle of the recording of Skeleton Tree, and was captured in Andrew Domenik’s black-and-white documentary One More Time With Feeling. Over spare piano ballads, Cave pours out his soul, the sort of primal scream album like John Lennon’s therapeutic Plastic Ono Band. It’s certainly not for everyone, but music was made for healing, and hearing Cave work out his tragedy can help someone else going through hardship to know they aren’t alone.

For more of my favorites from the fall, check out my Spotify playlist.

Songs for Peace: LxListening

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Frankly, 2016 has been an awful year. It has felt like every news cycle brings a new tragedy: black lives being taken from police brutality in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, police being shot in Dallas, and ISIS attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul, Orlando, Brussels, and San Bernadino. Fear, hatred, and anger is the language of the day and in the U.S. Election and Brexit.  Voices of ignorance and arrogance drown out those of love, courage, and unity.

While there is still certainly plenty of reason for protest and fighting for justice, sometimes we all just deeply long for peace and for all the madness to end. Music can bring a sense of healing and peace of mind like nothing else.

These for the most part aren’t anti-war or protest songs (we’ve been there before), but these are songs pointing to a brighter future, plain and simple. So for myself and anyone who needs a little bit of hope, here are my favorite songs for peace.

Listen on Apple Music

Listen on Spotify

 

LxListening: Rocking and Rolling

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Rock music has really fallen far in the last two decades, being replaced by hip hop, pop, and then electronic music as the primary musical language of the day. While it once ruled the musical landscape for about 40 years (about 1955-1995), rock music is quickly becoming like jazz, a genre for a sub culture, rather than popular culture. So in some ways, liking rock music makes me (and maybe you) a bit of an old fogy. Whether it’s the predominant music of the day or just part of a subculture, either way, there will always be vibrant, exciting rock music just as there is always vibrant, exciting jazz music.

Early 2016 is no exception. Several of my favorite rock bands going released albums or singles as well as a few new bands I’m excited about. Here are six songs from bands that keep rocking and rolling even into 2016.

 

“Mother of the Sun” – Black Mountain

Quite simply, this is a mountain of a song. If you are a fan of 70’s hard rock and heavy metal like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, there really probably is no better modern band for you to listen to. Trippy, heavy riffs that just serve as body blows. The perfect male/female rock vocal duo in Amber Webber and Stephen McBean as if they were transported straight out of 1970. Yet they have enough experimentation and songwriting craft to not just be a carbon copy of those 70’s rock bands.

 

“Dust” – Parquet Courts

“Dust” is the perfect anthem for cleaning your house. What a strange, funny, and surprisingly existential song it is from the fine Texas band, Parquet Courts. They have some of my favorite guitar/bass interplay since the Strokes. Now you have no excuse not to clean.

 

“Black Lipstick” – Chicano Batman

Receiving the blessing of Jack White, L.A. band Chicano Batman isn’t just one of the best named bands around – they are also one of the most interesting bands around. Combining psychedelic soul, Brazilian tropicalia, Latin blues, and soul into one amusing musical melting pot, I can’t wait to see these guys live.

 

“The Wheel” – PJ Harvey

In a year of political division, alt-rock great PJ Harvey is making political anthems for the people. Her new album releasing this week, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is filled with catchy yet piercing rebel anthems standing up for the people of England and those around the world, continuing her political bent started on her last album, 2011’s Let England Shake.

 

“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” – Car Seat Headrest

Young guitar and singer/songwriting prodigies appear to be popping up left and right. Courtney Barnett was our obsession the last two years, and I think its safe to say, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest might be ours this year. In addition to writing my favorite rock song so far this year, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a stunning two-sided song starting tender and coyly before finishing with triumphant and biting guitar.

 

“The Answer” – Savages

Measured in pure riffage and intensity, it’s really hard to beat Savages. Jehnny Beth looks pretty much possessed on stage, and the rest of the band plays with the precision of Joy Division and the force of the Stooges. They are truly a sight to see.

LxListening: Sweet 2016

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It’s been a modest yet somewhat surprising first few months of music in 2016. We had a crazy sloppy album release from the former best rapper on the planet (Kanye West with Life of Pablo), and a quiet surprise release from the current best rapper on the planet (Kendrick Lamar with Untitled Unmastered). We’ve had a lot of old favorites come out with some solid releases (M. Ward, Mavis Staples, Santigold), and a few breakout artists catch me by surprise (Anna Meredith, TEEN, Anderson .Paak). Here are five of my favorite songs so far to come out in 2016.

Continue reading “LxListening: Sweet 2016”

LxListening: Love Story

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This is certainly not the playlist you expected upon first clicking in. It’s not the soundtrack to Sleepless in Seattle 2 or the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but rather love-themed songs from unexpected sources from my past months’ worth of listening. So I guess that makes this clickbait in a way  ¯_(ツ)_/¯. There are some older acts I’ve dug deep into for the first time, as well as some newer acts I’m excited to hear more from. So without further ado, a love-themed playlist that’s not too sacharine.

Harry Nilsson – “Love Story (You and Me)”

Everybody’s talking Ryan Adams covers album of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Well I just found an album of one of my favorite underrated musicians, Harry Nilsson, covering another much underrated musician, Randy “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” Newman, with tremendous success on Nilsson Sings Newman. “Love Story (You and Me)” is maybe the finest moment on all the covers album with Nilsson’s golden pipes take Newman’s nervy, intelligent piano ballad to new heights.

Royal Headaches – “Love Her If I Tried”

This is nothing fancy but great nonetheless. Australian rockers Royal Headache are sort of warm and affectionate punk music, if there was ever such a thing. The lead singer – who just goes by the name Shogun – has sort of an early Beatles-like innocence to him, even as the guitars soar and swell around him.

The Modern Lovers – “Pablo Picasso”

This may be cheating since “Love” is in the band name instead of song name, but The Modern Lovers remain one of the most influential but least known bands around, especially upon today’s indie rock scene. One of my very favorite bands today, Parquet Courts, are essentially a modern retread of the Modern Lovers. “Pablo Picasso” shows the humor, edge, and rawness that makes Jonathan Richman so great, and it was also fun to revisit after just getting a heavy dose of Picasso on my recent trip to Spain.

Rhiannon Giddens – “O Love Is Teasin”

Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer, violinist, and banjo extraordinaire for the bluegrass trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, stepped out on her own earlier this year with her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, and it’s pretty much perfect Americana music: beautiful unadulterated melodies and harmonies, brilliant string-playing, and bare-bones percussion to move things along and provide texture. “O Love Is Teasin’” captures the intense drama and grace that Giddens’ voice and music embodies.

John Grant – “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore”

Speaking of drama, John Grant’s music is dripping with it, plus an surprising dose of humor. Instead of a heirloom piano or a beloved six-string, the now Iceland-based singer/songwriter chooses propulsive, sci-fi synths as his backdrop for his confessionals. “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” could be sung beautifully with almost any arrangement, but it’s distinct and haunting coming from Grant.

LxListening: Back in School

While plenty of people (students and teachers alike), just went back to school, this time of year usually is a great time for music discoveries. Here are five of my favorite songs from the last couple months, as well as a Spotify playlist including plenty more.

Low Cut Connie – “Back in School”

Can we talk about Barrack Obama having the best taste of music of any president ever? Who knows what Obama’s legacy will be 10 years from now, but I certainly won’t forget that. Obama recently included rabble-rouser bar band Low Cut Connie on his Spotify Summer Playlist, and he’s certainly all the cooler for it.

Leon Bridges – “Better Man”

Leon Bridges is probably the closest thing to a second coming of Sam Cooke we’ve had in 50 years. His songs are simple, innocent, and irresistible.

Mac Demarco – “A Heart Like Hers”

I used to not care for Mac Demarco and his stoner, goofball schtick, but then I actually saw him live and truly listened to his music. Turns out that stoner, goofball is an amazing songwriter, especially around heartbreak. “A Heart Like Hers” sounds more like Damon Albarn singing mournfully for the Gorillaz than anything, but it’s an extremely moving song either way.

Dr. Dre feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Genocide”

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This is officially the year of Kendrick Lamar and Oscar Isaac. Oscar Isaac because he’s now killed it in Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Show Me a Hero, and will soon blow up as big as Harrison Ford when the new Star Wars hits this Christmas. Kendrick, because he’s put out the best album this year, been on the biggest summer single in T. Swift’s “Bad Blood”, and totally dominated Dr. Dre’s new album to the point it should be called a Kendrick album. “Deep Water” displays a rapper simply out of his head, a once-a-decade rap talent. (P.S. Because of Dre’s billion dollar empire, of course he doesn’t make the song available on any outlet except Apple Music.)

Thundercat – “Them Changes”

Thundercat knows how to bring dat bass. The producer and bassist is sort of the unsung hero on To Pimp a Butterfly, but has made plenty of amazing music himself these past three years. Be sure to check out his Song Exploder episode on “Them Changes”, breaking apart all the different elements in the song.

For more music from the past few months, visit my 15-song Spotify playlist.