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.

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3 Things the Grammys Got Right

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Kendrick Lamar performs at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Let’s be honest: of the four major award shows – the Emmy’s (TV), Grammys (Music), Oscars (Movies), and Tony’s (Theatre) – the Grammys is probably the worst and least representative of what is truly the best in its field. We’ve covered that plenty over the last five years but if anyone knows me, I like to focus on the positive. I’m a glass half-full type. That proved especially difficult with maddening snubs for Best Song, New Artist, and Album of the Year and just an overall boring broadcast. But I’ll do my best. So here are the three things the 2016 Grammy’s got right.

Hamilton gets its moment in the spotlight

Hamilton has been the biggest musical smash since Book of Mormon, and it rightfully crossed over from the Tony’s into the Grammy’s for a live performance and incredible rapped acceptance speech from creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda. It was a big wakeup from the first 1.5 hours of the awards show that was nothing but snoozy adult-contemporary singing.

Genre awards were largely correct

Whether it was Alabama Shakes winning Best Alternative album, Kendrick winning Best Rap Album, Chris Stapleton winning Best Country Album, or D’Angelo winning best R&B album, several great songs and albums actually won awards. In terms of sub-categories, this is probably the highest hit-rate a Grammy night has had in the last 10 years.

Kendrick getting awards two years after getting snubbed out for Macklemore

Two years after getting snubbed  for all the rap awards to white-rapper Macklemore, the Grammys do what the Grammys do best: make up for a previous wrong. Not completely, but at least in part. This has been done time and time again, and it usually happens with rock bands 30-40 years after their heyday, but fortunately, the Grammys actually got it right with Kendrick Lamar sweeping the rap categories. They certainly screwed up Album of the Year going with Taylor Swift over Kendrick, but that’s not a huge surprise (Speakerboxx/The Love Below by Outkast was the only time a rapper has won Best Album of the Year, and half of that album isn’t really hip hop at all).

Kendrick also delivered easily the best performance of the night, starting by pointing to the injustice towards Blacks in our prison system with “Blacker the Berry”, than going crazy with a huge bonfire and tribal dancers with the Grammy-award winning song “Alright”, and finally debuting a new song where Kendrick raps better and faster than anyone else. It was one of the few thrilling performances in a largely drowsy night.

LxL’s 20 Best Songs of 2015

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We may be running a bit behind already in 2016, but better late than never. Here is what we at LxL agreed were the top tracks of 2015:

20. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”
From the moment Brittany Howards screeching intro to beers into your ears, you can feel in your bones that this track is going to be great. It does not let down one bit throughout either.

Continue reading “LxL’s 20 Best Songs of 2015”

Best of 2015: Personal Favorites

kendrickHere are our personal top 10 albums and songs of 2015:

Wes

Songs:

 

10. Grimes – “Kill V. Maim”
9. CHVRCHES – “Leave a Trace”
8. Jidenna – “Classic Man”
7. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”
6. Jamie xx – “Loud Places”
5. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
4. Vince Staples – “Summertime”
3. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
2. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
1. Sufjan Stevens – “Fourth of July”

Albums:

courtney-barnett-sometimes-i-sit-and-think-sometimes-i-just-sit

10. Low – Ones and Sixes
9. Wilco – Star Wars
8. Tame Impala – Currents
7. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf
6. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
5. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
4. Grimes – Art Angels
3. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
2. Courtney Bartnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Todd

Songs:

10. Baio – “Sister of Pearl”
9. Death Grips – “On GP”
8. Ought – “Men for Miles”
7. David Bowie – “Blackstar”
6. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin”
5. Grimes – “Kill V. Maim”
4. Jamie xx – “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times”
3. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
2. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
1. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

Albums:

kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly

10. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf
9. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
8. Baio – The Names
7. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
6. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
5. Grimes – Art Angels
4. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…
3. Courtney Bartnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
2. Tame Impala – Currents
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Austin

Songs:

10. Dr Dre – “One Shot One Kill”
9. Grimes – “Easily”
8. Jason Isbell – “The Life You Chose”
7. Viet Cong – “Silhouettes”
6. David Bowie – “Blackstar”
5. Titus Andronicus – “Lonely Boy”
4. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
3. Jamie xx – “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times”
2. Vince Staples – “Lemme Know”
1. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

Albums:

Summertime-06

10. Death Grips – Jenny Death
9. Janet Jackson – Unbreakable
8. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
7. Jason Isbell – Something More than Free
6. Joanna Newsom – Divers
5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
4. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
3. Grimes – Art Angels
2. Courtney Bartnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
1. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

LxL’s 20 Best Albums of 2015

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We are nearly two weeks into the New Year which many would classify as late for end-of-year lists, but we’ve chose to wait for two reasons. First, we want to get it right and make sure we aren’t missing any last second releases like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah last year or Beyonce’s self-titled surprise the year before as well as giving everything a thorough listen. Second, frankly the holidays get in the way and we haven’t had a lot of time. This year was one frontloaded with monster releases that have topped our list, though there are a couple surprises in our top 20. Unfortunately, years like 2015 where there are all-time great releases like those we got from Kendrick Lamar and Courtney Barnett, frankly these lists aren’t as exciting as years where the best album of the year is more subjective.

20. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

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The New Jersey punk-rockers led by Patrick Stickles put out a double album that is somehow not even their most ambitious album. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a 29-song rock opera around the subject of Stickles own mental illness.

19. Sleater Kinney – No Cities To Love

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The powerful female rock trio Sleater Kinney returned from their 9-year hiatusfor their most rocking album yet.

18. Jamie xx – In Colour

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The best dance record of the year, British producer Jamie xx delivered the goods on In Colour with club jams like “Gosh”, “Loud Places”, and “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”.

17. Low Cut Connie – Hi Honey

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A return to the rock ‘n’ roll of old, Low Cut Connie lovingly revives the sound of Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones, even making a fan out of the most powerful man on Earth.

16. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

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Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty is bringing a much-needed sense of humor back into the independent music world.

15. Kamasi Washington – The Epic

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The L.A. saxophonist revived our love of jazz in 2015.

14. Janet Jackson – Unbreakable

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Our biggest surprise of 2015, Janet Jackson returned with one of the best R&B albums of 2015, full of great guest stars and even greater songs.

13. Viet Cong – Viet Cong

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Who knew Canadians could pack such a punch. Calgary newcomers Viet Cong absolutely bring the hammer on their self-titled debut.

12. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love

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New Zealand’s Ruban Nielson, the man behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, continues to expand his psyschedelic pop sound to invigorating new territory.

11. Death Grips – Jenny Death

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Back from a surprise early breakup, industrial hip hop duo Death Grips delivered two albums: The Powers that B and Jenny Death with the latter being our favorite of the two.

10. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf

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2015 will be the year that Chance the Rapper broke out big, even cementing himself as Chicago Magazine’s “Chicagoan of the Year”. He especially made a big impact in his role in friend Nico Segal aka Donnie Trumpet’s debut album, one of the most joyous albums of the year.

9. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…

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Kurt Vile may just look like a stoner in your high school that skipped class, listened to Pink Floyd, and worked fast food (and he may have indeed been that guy), but he is also one of the hardest working and best songwriters going right now.

8. Bjork – Vulnicura

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Bjork’s Vulnicura is just like it’s title: a vulnerable breakup album which is made all the more affecting with Bjork’s chilling voice and the help of the mysterious and experimental Venezuelan producer Arca.

7. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

sufjan

Speaking of vulnerable, it doesn’t get a lot more vulnerable than talking about your late mother who left you due to addiction. Sufjan sings about darkness and brokenness with as much grace and beauty as anyone since Elliott Smith.

6. Joanna Newsom – Divers

Joanna_Newsom_-_Divers

Joanna Newsom is certainly not for everyone (her voice upon first listen sounds like a frog and her songs are long and complicated), but if you allow yourself to suspend disbelief and go into her world, you will truly be blown away by her magical music world.

5. Tame Impala – Currents

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Three albums in, Australian psych-rockers have quickly become one of our favorite bands. Currents moves their band in a more dance pop direction, further proving they can’t seem to do no wrong.

4. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

Summertime-06

If it wasn’t for the larger-than-life brilliance of Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples’ double-disc debut would be an easy pick for best rap album of the year. Vince Staples raps and sometimes croons about the danger and confusion he faced growing up with serious conviction.

3. Grimes Art Angels

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Few artists are bold enough to throw away a year’s worth of work, but that’s exactly what Claire Boucher aka Grimes did when she wasn’t happy with the album she was set to release in 2014. Instead, we waited and were rewarded with Art Angels, an album only Boucher could make.

2. Courtney Bartnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

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Pure joy to listen to, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett sings, writes, and plays like no one else on her brilliantly-titled studio debut.

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

kendrick-butterfly

What more do we need to say that hasn’t been said. Kendrick Lamar is embracing his African-American musical heritage yet pushing music forward to a bold new frontier.

Just Missed:

Wes – Wilco – Star Wars

star-wars

The first Star Wars of the year was also my favorite (sorry JJ Abrams).

Todd – Baio – The Names

Baio-The-Names

Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio released a surprising and fun solo debut in The Names.

Austin – Jason Isbell – Something More than Free

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Something More Than Free somehow flew under the radar even though Jason Isbell really couldn’t be blowing up any more right now.

 

 

 

Kamasi Washington Live Review

Kamasi Washington

September 9th, 2015

Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL

Kamasi Washington performs live in the KCRW studio.
Credit: KCRW

As an extremely casual jazz fan, Kamasi Washington’s three hour epic aptly titled Epic is the first jazz record I’ve listened to non-stop in probably five years. For those unfamiliar, Kamasi Washington is an L.A. saxophonist with a laundry list of great recording credits, including work for Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus, Ryan Adams, Gerard Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Broken Bells, and of course, stamping his fingerprints all over the album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Fellow LxLer Todd and I caught Kamasi Washington and his band – filled with musicians Kamasi has played with for over 20 years – at the Bottom Lounge, and it officially ruined the rest of the rock shows we go to this year.

I hadn’t previously been to the Bottom Lounge, but was impressed by the beer selection, atmosphere, and sound of the venue. Before the show, we met Kamasi’s keyboardist Brandon Coleman and trombonist Ryan Porter while hanging out at the bar. Both had some pretty awesome stories from their touring travels with Kamasi – whom they have known and played with since they were kids – and other acts including Alicia Keys and Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Al MacKay. Stories from their childhood and and travels, including a call to the Austrian president to get a band-mate out of jail in time for a gig, were pretty incredible and promising for the show to come.

Drummer Makaya McCraven served as the opener with his band, with extremely powerful but swift drumming. He plays sort of like a hip hop drummer forced to play jazz, a pretty unique style to experience live.

Kamasi then came on stage, fielding two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner), a stand-up bassist (Miles Mosely), female vocalist (Patrice Quinn), trombonist (Ryan Porter), and keyboard and keytarist (Brandon Coleman). Kamasi’s father Rickey, who was running the merch table, also joined the band for about half the set, playing soprano sax and flute. The band’s life-long familiarity and friendship plays into the comfort and fluidity with which the band plays.

Kamasi opened with “Change of the Guard”, the Epic opener that perfectly captures the politically-charged America we currently live in. Kamasi’s style of jazz is fused with hip hop and funk, but definitely channels the spiritual and spacey sounds of John Coltrane. Other highlights included the soulful salute to his grandmother, “Henrietta Our Hero”, the smooth lounge sway of “The Rhythm Changes”, and the fluid “Final Thought”. While Kamasi certainly plays with incredible dexterity and power, it’s the golden tones he consistently strikes with his saxophone that really takes his playing to a new level.

Todd and I definitely learned the hard way when you are used to going to rock shows, the musicianship of a jazz show can certainly make everything else look like child’s play. Kamasi is a force that has not only infiltrated the hip hop and rock world, but will likely be delivering great jazz records for years to come.

P.S. You can learn more about Kamasi and watch him live on NPR’s Jazz Night in America.

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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.