Monday, August 15, 2016

The Album of the Summer is no more, but if I were picking this year I would probably choose  Aurora’s album “All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend.” This young Norwegian has recruited many happy warriors with the infectious songs on her debut album.

In addition, several previous AOTS winners have new albums out or arriving soon. Fountains of Wayne appear to be on hiatus, but front man Chris Collingwood has released a new solo album called “Look Park.” It is full of breezy pop songs that FOW fans will thoroughly enjoy.

Andrew Bird’s latest album “Are You Serious” features “Left Handed Kisses,” a duet with Fiona Apple. Lisa Hannigan’s “At Swim,” produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, is streaming now on NPR prior to release on August 19th. Regina Spektor’s “Remember Us to Life” goes on sale September 30th. If you have not already done so, you should listen to her recent cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” done for the the animated movie “Kubo and the Two Strings.” I will embed the YouTube video below.  Finally, Bell X1’s new album, “Arms,” arrives on October 14th.

Here is Aurora's "Conqueror." It will make you want to dance:

Here are Andrew Bird and Fiona Apple playing out the conflict between romantics and rationalists in "Left Handed Kisses":

This is "Ora" from Lisa Hannigan's new album, "At Swim," to be released on August 19th.

Here is a live video of "Look Park" doing "Aeroplane." Look Park will begin a national tour with a show on August 27th at Look Park in Northhampton, MA. Chris Collingwood's home town.

This is Regina Spektor's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from the movie "Kubo and the Two Strings":

Finally, here is the official video for "The Upswing" from Bell X1's forthcoming album "Arms."

That's all for now.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Morning Phase by Beck

Wait. That can’t be right. The Album of the Summer is usually by some relatively small alt/indy artist (Fountains of Wayne, Lisa Hannigan, They Might Be Giants, Sufjan Stevens) or a newish up-and-comer who goes on to become huge (Jack Johnson, Regina Spektor, Jamie Cullum)—though certainly not because they won Album of the Summer award. 

And of course, none of this is true of Beck. 

Beck is arguably a little long in the tooth by comparison to other choices, having put out his first album in 1993, and by now he is a bigger star. Finally, MORNING PHASE came out over a year ago and this year was nominated for five Grammy awards, winning three, including “Album of the Year” and “Best Rock Album.” So why give this album—which many of you may already own—such a coveted (wink, wink) honor? I’ll tell you why.

As you know, AOTS Criterion #3 is that the album “has to be new to me, but it may or may not be new to you,” and in this case the rule applies. Although I’d heard of Beck and knew a little about him, I had never listened any of his music before MORNING PHASE, and I bought the album quite late. 

Here’s how it happened: When MORNING PHASE was first released, I noted that a friend, Kim Stillwell, had expressed some excitement about it on Facebook, but that was not enough to get me to investigate. Then, quite independently, last year I happened to read Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, where I learned that Beck is a Scientologist. This probably stimulated some additional curiosity about him. Finally, I watched the Grammy awards, and when Beck won Album of the Year, my interest had reached a tipping point. Soon after the Grammys I bought the album, and I have been playing ever since.

I had no previous experience with Beck, and I understand this album is not like his other stuff. Nonetheless, I bonded with the music as soon as I heard it. Many of the songs are orchestrated and have a quiet, organ-like quality that is very appealing. There is no need to fudge on AOTS Criterion # 1 “It has to be happy,” because the songs are happy enough to qualify. Morning is usually an optimistic time of day, and it is not so much that the songs are cheerful or peppy but rather that they have a warm glow. Nonetheless, this is probably not the kind of music you would crank up in the car with the windows rolled down.

Again this year I spent a lot of time working in coffeehouses, and MORNING PHASE was a wonderful choice for headphone background music. The songs have lyrics, which can interfere with reading or writing, but because Beck’s singing on this album has a soft choral quality, the lyrics don’t cause a problem for me. Furthermore, MORNING PHASE kindles a nice emotional buzz that is conducive to productivity.

Here are a couple of my favorite songs from MORNING Phase, "Blue Moon":

And "Heart is a Drum":



Glass is a former Honorable Mention winner and one of Dublin’s many talented musicians. His fourth album, SUNDAY SONGS, was released to rave reviews just a few weeks ago, but shortly after the album appeared in Ireland, Glass’s distribution company went bankrupt, making it unclear whether he will ever make any money from the retail sales of what is a wonderful body of work. If you order SUNDAY SONGS get it from his bandcamp site (minimum price $9 USD) so that he makes a little money.

Glass is an Irish interpreter of American country music, but still squarely in the Indy category. The first single from the album, “Better Left Alone,” is a nostalgic lost love song with some nice pedal steel guitar work in the second half. The title song suggests waking up on a Sunday morning by beginning with the chirping of birds before going into the first line: “Sunday’s for sleeping off the night before...” In interviews Glass has explained that he considers a Sunday song to be something that is mellow and honest and not too light. He claims that most of the tracks on the album were written in various states of being hung over, which makes sense. They are melancholy gems.

Here is "Better Left Alone":

And "Sunday Song":


Yes, this is the freaking automatic download album. On September 9, 2014, about a half a billion people—including me—received a free copy of SONGS OF INNOCENCE via automatically downloaded to iTunes—whether they wanted it or not. This famously pissed of a few people, as you can read about here, but at some point I started listening to the songs and never stopped.

If Beck is long in the tooth, U2 is ancient. They formed in 1976. They’ve sold millions of albums and continue to fill arenas. Their European tour is completely sold out except for the last of six shows at the London O2 Arena in November. People have strong feelings about U2 and particularly Bono—he of the famously outsized ego. But one of the more important books I read this year was Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, in which he praises Bono’s work with the ONE Campaign to end global poverty. I think that counts for something.

One of the unofficial criteria for an Album of The Summer is that you find yourself involuntarily singing the songs in the shower or at the grocery store, and “California (There is No End to Love)” from SONGS OF INNOCENCE definitely fits the bill.  Inexplicably, the song begins with a repeated Beach Boy-like refrain of “Ba-ba-barbara, Santa Barbara/ Ba-ba-barbara, Santa Barbara,” and I still can’t get those lines out of my head. The song became serious problem this summer when I spent a couple of days vacationing in the actual (and beautiful) town of Santa Barbara, California.

My favorite songs on the album are “Every Breaking Wave,” which starts off with a quiet Bono vocal over a thumping base line before breaking into a big arena ballad chorus. Rolling Stone ranked it the third best song of 2014. I am also a fan of the quieter ballad, “Song for Someone.” Here they are:

"Every Breaking Wave":

Here is "Song for Someone":


There has to be one genuinely sad album listed, and Sufjan Stevens is often up to the task. After a long hiatus, this year Stevens (2006 AOTS winner for ILLINOISE) released a deeply personal album named for and largely about his late mother and surviving stepfather. Between the ages of five and eight, Stevens spent summers at his mother and stepfather’s home in Oregon, and these experiences make up his most important memories of Carrie, who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.

The album is filled with haunting songs sung in Stevens’ high, breathy voice with minimal instrumental accompaniment. This a simple folk album, but the songs deal very directly with sadness and death.  One of my favorite tracks is the first one, “Death with Dignity.” I’ve included a YouTube video of the song on the Album of the Summer website. CARRIE & LOWELL was released to uniformly positive reviews, and I agree it is a beautiful album. I probably still prefer Illinoise, but I admire Stevens’ sweetness and seriousness of purpose on CARRIE & LOWELL.

Here is the official video (audio only) of beautiful "Death with Dignity":


Glen Hansard (Swell Season, Once, The Frames, and previous AOTS Honorable Mention) has a new solo album called DIDN’T HE RAMBLE coming out in a few days, followed by a world tour.

Lisa Hannigan (2012 AOTS winner for PASSENGER) is rumored to be working on a new album.

And finally, the following announcement:


I have been at this little ritual for quite a while now. It began with Fountains of Wayne (“Stacey’s Mom”) in 2003, which means that this year marks the thirteenth AOTS. Thirteen has always been important number for me, and I think the time has come to bring this project to a close. Picking an Album of the Summer has been a wonderful warm weather activity for lo these many years, and it has prompted me to listen to more music than I would otherwise have done. That can only be a good thing. I’ve enjoyed some fabulous music. But for the last few years, the job has been more of a chore than a pleasure, and I interpret that as a signal that it is time to pack it in.

If there is a positive aspect to ending the Album of the Summer it is that I look forward to starting a new ritual. The rituals and routines of life have many positive functions, especially when they bring people together. The AOTS has certainly done that in a small and mostly electronic way. As a result, I hope to create something new in the coming years. Stay tuned.

Because it has become kind of a tradition, too, I will leave you with James Maddock’s “When the Sun’s Out.” I hope you have a little time left to fire up the stereo, while the sun’s still out.

When the sun’s out,
I wanna be with the one I love.
I wanna know what she’s thinking of,
Is she still in love,
When the sun’s out.

When the sun’s out,
I wanna go where the people go.
I wanna fire up the stereo,
Hear that song I know,
When the sun’s out.

That’s it, folks. Thanks for everything.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 Chop Chop by Bell X1

Another Irish band. Can’t quite shake the Irish theme of recent years, and once again I was a little slow on the uptake. Although I had never heard of Bell X1 before coming across a video of “The End is Nigh”—one of the singles and my favorite song from CHOP CHOP—Bell X1 has been in operation for fifteen years, and this is their sixth album. They were a frequent opening act for U2, and although Bell X1 remain very popular in their native country, they are much less well known in the U.S.

Although this is definitely my Album of the Summer (and the year), once again I have had to fudge a bit on the happy criterion. Several of the songs are quite dreary in both sound and lyric—the band is Irish, after all—and the songs that sound upbeat and danceable tend to be about depressing topics such as the end of the world or “death by a thousand little downers.” So the happy criterion is deeply problematic once again. 

I think I like almost every song on this album, but there are a few that are worthy of specific mention. The long, wan chords of “Starlings Over Brighton Pier” (track #1) make it an intoxicatingly wistful piece that conveys a sustained sense of depressed longing (“They take me away from this place/From the buzzing of half remembered fails”). Here is the official video of "Starlings Over Brighton Pier":

“Careful What You Wish For” (track #3) is a great song for which Bell X1 has provided an artsy video (see the AOTS webpage), but I confess to not having a clue what it is about. The lyrics repeat the phrase, “Careful what you wish for. / ‘Cause these bulbs are the fluorescent kind / And no one looks good in this light.” It is easy enough to agree with this assertion, but there must be more to the lyric than meets the eye. At least, I hope so. Here is the artsy video:

The last song, “The End is Nigh,” is the one that clinched it for me almost before I’d heard the rest of the album. It is a raucously warm and loving song about—yes—the end of the world. In a kind of Irish fatalism, the song anticipates a final apocalypse by plague, asteroid, or nuclear war, but it uses this backdrop to think about love and friendship. The song asks the simple question, if the end were coming, whom would you want to hug for the last time? “Who would make the cut, when our time is up?”
Whose arms would I seek?
Whose eyes would I meet in the final throes?
And say it was good to be human.
To be a human with you here. 
Rather than being a downer, the music and the song are driving and exhilarating. I get teary each time I hear it. There are several videos of “The End is Nigh” available online, but my favorite is a live performance recorded last Christmas at Vicar Street in Dublin. The end of the video—which I have posted to the AOTS website—includes photo booth pictures of lovers and friends who would presumably “make the cut.”

As it turns out, Bell X1 is touring the U.S. in September. 



This is the self-titled debut album by a group of six high school friends from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Phox emerged in 2013 and has been touring in support of this first effort, released just this June. The group recently received mainstream recognition in the form of a very positive review in the NY Times (, so they are starting out well. Phox is led by singer Monica Martin, whose lilting breathy voice soars and dives in unpredictable ways. The songs are quite upbeat, including “Shrinking Violets” (track #8), “1936” (track #4), which includes some nice banjo backing, and the single “Slow Motion” (track #3). In contrast to the actual 2014 winning album—PHOX comes much closer to satisfying the AOTS “it must be happy” criterion. There is also an impish, artsy quality to the entire album, which is reflected in the band’s videos, all of which are very creative and appealing. “Slow Motion” is the kind of song you find yourself singing involuntarily, without warning.

Here is the official video of "Slow Motion":

In addition to the lighter numbers, PHOX has its more somber moments. I would not call any of the lyrics (all written by Martin) particularly inspired, but she takes on the infidelity of a lover in “Evil” (track #5) and a friend with problems in “Laura.” The seven-minute-long “Raspberry Seed” is a particular favorite of mine. It is a Ravel’s Bolero-like slow build that begins with a sad lyric for the first three minutes and then goes entirely instrumental, continuing the long crescendo driven by a rhythmic, almost Western-sounding guitar line.  

The final song is a happy but sly little ditty about an avoided relationship. It includes the refrain: “And for years to come in the mornings / You may think I'm the best thing that you almost had.”

Overall, PHOX is a fun album that reveals much midwestern talent. Martin is an infectious singer, and the rest of the band provides very strong instrumental backing. Highly recommended.

Here is the official video of "Kingfisher":

I will leave you with a repeat extra feature from last year. A song that has become a favorite anthem of summer: James Maddock’s “When the Sun’s Out.” I’ve appended a different video of the song this year, complete with its happy chorus:

When the sun’s out,
I wanna be with the one I love.
I wanna know what she’s thinking of,
Is she still in love,
When the sun’s out. 

When the sun’s out, 
I wanna go where the people go. 
I wanna fire up the stereo,
Hear that song I know,
When the sun’s out.

I hope you have a few more chances to fire up the stereo and be with the one you love while the sun is still out.

See you next summer.


Monday, August 5, 2013

2013 Nanobots by They Might Be Giants

For many people, this band is really old school. This is their sixteenth studio album. They Might Be Giants launched in 1982, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, and the two main members, John Flansburg and John Linnell, are well into their 50s, for god’s sakes. But as is often the case, I was a little behind on the whole TMBG thing. I’d heard of them. I remember something about their Dial-a-Song project years ago. But I had never really listened to their music before. After giving Nanobots a quick review, everything fell into place almost instantly. I realized Nanobots has many of the classic features of a successful Album of the Summer. First, it’s happy. Indeed, TMBG is a group with a silly, somewhat adolescent sense of humor and fun. (They have done several albums of children’s music.) So, right off the bat, one of the historically most challenging criteria of the AOTS (“2. It has to be happy.”) was solidly met. I have a clear preference for clever lyrics, and They Might Be Giants remind me of Fountains of Wayne and Barenaked Ladies, both of which are known for their intelligent, wiseacre wordplay. You will smile, and you will often feel like dancing. Very importantly, this is great music to crank up in the car with the windows cranked down. Finally, the best Albums of the Summer include songs you find yourself singing involuntarily: in the shower, in the produce section of the grocery store, while doing the dishes. This happens to me regularly with the songs from Nanobots.

There are no fewer than 25 songs on this album. Some of them quite short, but all are really good. Noteworthy numbers of the fun/ridiculous variety include the opening number, “You’re On Fire,” the title song “Nanobots,”  “Call You Mom,” “Stone Cold Coup D’Etat,” and “Darlings of Lumberland,” which includes the refrain, “It’s getting difficult for a ghoul.” I particularly like the lyrics to “You’re On Fire,” which is about a man with a combustable head:

          The lights are low, and the music is extremely loud.
          You're hard to get to know, but you're easy to spot in a crowd.

But not everything is silliness. “Black Ops” is a political commentary that is quite timely in light of controversies surrounding the NSA and drone warfare. “Circular Karate Chop” appears to be a satirical repudiation of a certain kind of American macho culture, but like several of these songs, it is a bit difficult to parse. There are two very sweet ballads. “Tesla” is an adoring, somewhat nerdy (TMBG are definitely nerds) homage to the inventor, and “Sometimes a Lonely Way” is a beautiful breakup song. Both retain a hint of tongue-in-cheekness, but both are lovely.

To follow up on the nerd assertion, I offer the following evidence of the group’s appeal to fellow nerds: two academics have written a forthcoming book entirely devoted to the TMBG album Flood.

If you get hooked and want to go down the rabbit hole of TMBG geekdom, there is a fan-maintained TMBG wiki at the link below that contains every bit of information you could possibly want about this group.

Finally, always pioneers of new ways to deliver their music to listeners, TMBG has a free iPhone app that recreates their Dial-a-Song project by offering a rotating list of five free songs.

TMBG will be playing for free @ 7:30 PM on Saturday August 10 at the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. Closer to home, they will be playing at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence on Thursday October 10.

Thanks to Jenn Siegel for nominating Nanobots.

Here is a live version of "You're On Fire" performed in Sydney, Australia, complete with a psychedelic light show:

Here  is a live performance of the title track, "Nanobots," preceded by a little comedy routine by the two Johns:

And just to show a more serious side of TMBG, here is "Sometimes A Lonely Way" accompanied by artistic, if somewhat retro, moving black and white shapes:


Forward/Return by The Album Leaf

A new wrinkle in this year’s AOTS awards is an emphasis on instrumental music. If there are unspoken, implicit criteria for the AOTS—and there definitely are—lyrics seem to be a necessary component. Happiness and the impulse to dance are often facilitated by fun lyrics. So all eleven winning albums of the summer over the first decade of the award’s existence have been albums full of songs with words. But I always tell my students that they should not try to read or study while listening to music with lyrics, due to problem of verbal interference. At the same time, I understand the temptation. Not unlike my students, I sometimes find myself in a noisy environment or simply longing for the enhanced mood that music can create. And yet I would prefer not to have the interference of lyrics. I have some classical music and a collection of Philip Glass in my iTunes library for just this kind of situation, but there is a whole world of contemporary instrumental music that goes far beyond Tubular Bells and George Winston (though I admit to still loving George Winston).

I discovered this album in one of the ways that have become traditional for AOTS selection. Late at night, reading a book in my favorite coffeehouse in the world, The Coffee Exchange in Providence, Rhode Island, I heard this music and was moved to get up and ask one of the baristas about it. About a month later at the same location, I heard the same sounds again and again consulted the barista. That was sometime last winter, and I have been playing Forward/Return ever since.

The Album Leaf is a “post rock” solo project of Jimmy LaValle, who, soon after launching the project, toured with Sigur Rós. The music on TAL’s 2012 album Forward/Return is somewhat electronic, employing synthesizers and the occasional drum machine, but there are also conventional instruments and voice. I like the music very much and have played it a few times in class—particularly in my “study hall” between sections of Psychology 100 this spring semester—to positive reviews. "Descent" and “Low Down” are favorite tracks.

Here is a live performance of "Descent"with another fancy light show that renders the band all but invisible:


Leaving Eden by  Carolina Chocolate Drops

This is a real change of pace, but I think you might like it. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are primarily made up of Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins, and Dom Flemons. The CCD have devoted most of their efforts to reinterpreting traditional African American string band and jug band music of the 1920s and 30s. Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, and Leaving Eden is their most recent album, released in February of 2012. This is southern folk music, and it is mostly very happy. Rhiannon Giddens, who takes the lead vocal on most of the tracks, has a sweet lyrical voice that she can twist into a bray when required by songs like “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” or  “No Man’s Mama.” The instrumentation of the songs includes banjo, fiddle, guitar, some truly excellent mandolin, and the clicking of bones (actual bones, played like spoons). Most of the songs are arrangements of traditional numbers, but the single “Country Girl” was written by Rhiannon. This is a really fun album with spirited music from a different era.

Thank you to Liza Talusan for nominating the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Here is the official video for "Country Girl":

There are many wonderful live performances by the Carolina Chocolate Drops on YouTube. Here is one of the Ethel Waters tune "No Man's Mama":



In recent years I’ve reached back to pull out an old album worthy of our summer attention. Continuing the instrumental theme of 2013, this duo—Grappelli (1908-1997), the French master of jazz violin and Menuhin (1916-1999), the Jewish American classical violinist—paired up for several jazz recordings in the 1970s. Grappelli was in his 60s at the time, having begun his career busking at age 15, then playing in the pit of a silent movie theater, and eventually teaming up with Django Reinhardt. Menuhin, whose parents came to the United States from Belarus, showed early promise and soloed with the San Francisco Philharmonic at age seven. He went on to become one of the world’s greatest violinists. During World War II he played for the allied troops, and, accompanied by Benjamin Britten on the piano, he played for the surviving members of the Bergen-Belsin concentration camp after it was liberated in 1945. Menuhin also collaborated with the eminent sitar player, Ravi Shankar, with whom he recorded the album West Meets East.

I picked Jealousy because it is an album I enjoyed many years ago, but if you are interested, there is now a Very Best of Grappelli & Menuhin CD, as well as a 4-CD boxed set of all their recordings together. I never tire of listening to the great standards of Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin, and these lilting and soaring violins convey great pathos and joy.

In this segment from a 1997 BBC tribute to Grapelli, you get a video of what is described as their first ever collaboration on "Jealousy," followed by a brief comment by Menuhin, followed by a performance four years later of Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm." At the end of the clip is an interview with the two men, which—apart from some potentially offensive references to Gypsies—is quite delightful. A points, Menuhin translates for Grappelli. This video will make you smile.



Camp is (was?) made up of former Connecticut College students, Liz de Lise ’13 (guitar & lead vocals), Jon Markson ’12 (bass, keyboards, and backing vocals), and Gautam Sinha ’13 (drums). I don’t believe I’ve met any of the three, but I had the pleasure of hearing Liz de Lise’s wonderful lead vocals in David Dorfman Dance’s recent production Come, and Back Again. She wrote all the songs on this eponymous three-track EP, and—mark my words—you will hear from Liz de Lise in the future. She is going places. The three songs provide just a brief glimpse of great talent, but all three are very tight. Sinha’s drumming adds a nice dimension.

You can listen to the full EP below, but I recommend you download it here. You can name your price.

Thank you to Cody Fisher for introducing me to Camp.


“When the Sun’s Out” by JAMES MADDOCK
I heard this song for the first time on WEHM 96.9 earlier this summer, and it was love at first listen. James Maddock is a British transplant to the US, and you will note the similarity to Bruce Springsteen, with whom he has performed. The song’s booming chorus is a wonderful expression of the joys of music and summertime love:
     When the sun’s out I want to be with the one I love.
     I want to know what she’s thinking of.
     Is she still in love?
     When the sun’s out.

     When the sun’s out, I want to go where the people go.
     I want to turn up the stereo,
     Hear that song I know.
     When the sun’s out.

“When the Sun’s Out” is from Maddock’s 2010 Sunrise on Avenue C album, and although there are many YouTube videos of him performing this song live, none of them are particularly good. I recommend you download a copy from your favorite digital music vendor. In the meantime, here is a YouTube version that isn’t too bad:

I hope you get a chance to turn up the stereo a few more times before the summer is gone.

Thanks to all who nominated albums this year.

See you next summer.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Passenger by Lisa Hannigan

Irish singer and songwriter Lisa Hannigan first gained attention as a member of Damien Rice’s band, but she went off on her own in 2007 and released her first solo album SEA SAW in 2008. She is now one of the brightest lights of a exciting group of young Dublin-based musicians. PASSENGER is her second album, released in late September of 2011 (too late for the 2011 award), and although I was already familiar with Hannigan, Rick Berkemeier gets credit for strong advocacy on her behalf.

Hannigan’s buoyant personality lifts many of the songs of PASSENGER, making it easy for me to check off the “it has be happy” box (Criterion #2) without the kind of awkward rationalization of previous years. The album’s first single “Knots” is an exuberant, if somewhat inscrutable, piece, and the official video has Hannigan’s white dress and white ukulele gradually being sprayed and splattered with brightly colored paints as she sings. (She has repeated this polychromatic feat in a recent live concert.) Other joyful, danceable numbers include the title song, “Passenger” and “What’ll I Do.” The funniest song on the album is “Safe Travels (Don’t Die).

        Don’t swallow bleach
        Out on Sandymount beach,
        I’m not sure I’d reach you in time, my boy.
        Please don’t bungee jump
        Or ignore a strange lump
        And a gasoline pump’s not a toy.

Other notable songs include “O Sleep,” a duet with Ray LaMontagne, and my two favorites: the haunting “Paper House” and equally poignant “Little Bird.” There isn’t a bad song on the album. I’ve listened to it for hours without getting tired of it.

In June, at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, I had a chance to see Hannigan, who was touring with Joe Henry and the English singer John Smith. It is a testament to Hannigan’s skill and the simplicity of her music that she sounds just as comfortable and precise in person as she does in her recordings. The three singers finished their set with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in tribute to Levon Helm. By the way, the loudest applause of the evening came for a song by John Smith, whose music I recommend highly:

Here is the paint splashing video for "Knots":

This is a very nice live performance of "Paper House" with Gavin Glass on piano and John Smith playing guitar:

Finally, here is a clip of Lisa Hannigan singing a segment of "Video Games," a song written by Honorable Mention Lana Del Rey.



One of the traditional indicators of an Album of the Summer is that the songs stick with you. You find yourself singing them in the shower and in the produce section of the grocery store. Singing them even when you don’t want to be singing them. More than any other album this year, BORN TO DIE fits that bill for me. Lana Del Rey is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant’s stage name, and BORN TO DIE is her (their?) first album.

 Del Rey comes to us from the Internet. Her career took off when she uploaded “Video Games” to her YouTube channel in June of 2011 and in October released the song as the first single from BORN TO DIE. The album itself did not appear until January of 2012. In the meantime, “Video Games” became an enormously successful single throughout Europe and the US. The YouTube video has been viewed 20 million times. (Not a record. The video of the title song, “Born to Die,” has been viewed 57 million times.)

 Del Rey describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which seems a bit redundant, but the LDR persona is a rich bad girl who likes bad boys. In addition to Sinatra, there are shades of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. The songs are nostalgic, cinematic, sardonic, sultry, and drug-and-alcohol-laced anthems set in New York City, The Hamptons, and Los Angeles. Del Rey’s music has also been described as “Americana,” and her album cover art evokes Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Some of the songs are upbeat (“Diet Mountain Dew”) and summery (“Summertime Sadness”), but the tone of the album is a little too evil to represent the spirit of an Album of the Summer. However, in my musical Venn diagram, the large circle labelled “Albums I Love” contains the smaller circle labeled “Albums of the Summer,” and I love BORN TO DIE. All the songs are good, but notable numbers include “National Anthem,” “Dark Paradise,” and “Radio.”

 Del Rey/Grant is, in my opinion, a better songwriter than she is a singer, and as evidence of this, the Album of the Summer website contains a brief but quite beautiful clip of Lisa Hannigan singing “Video Dreams”— a nice blend of 2012 Album of the Summer winner and Honorable Mention. Nonetheless, Del Rey is a very creative vocal stylist. Her voice often seems to drift into babyish pouting and on “National Anthem” she affects a lisp that makes an effective contrast with the grandiosity of the song.

Thanks to James Spier for nominating BORN TO DIE.

Here is the official video for "National Anthem," which makes the Marilyn Monroe connection explicit.


"Blue Jeans" is one of my favorite songs from the album:


As my Psychology 101 students know, Andrew Bird is one of my very favorites. BREAK IT YOURSELF is the second Honorable Mention for this singer, songwriter, guitarist, violinist, and whistler. His first HM was in 2009 for NOBLE BEAST. BREAK IT YOURSELF is easily happy enough to qualify as an Album of the Summer. Your body begins to sway to the beat of the very first song, “Desperation Breeds…,” and other danceable numbers including “Danse Caribe,” “Orpheo Looks Back,” and “Near Death Experience Experience,” with its refrain: And we'll dance like cancer survivors Like your prognosis was that you should've died. There are many more happy numbers here, including “Give It Away,” but the album title is drawn from the more pounding single “Eyeoneye,” and “Lusitania” is a beautiful, longing antiwar-themed duet with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. The album is full of Bird’s varied instrumentation. He plucks and strums his violin and sometimes saws at it like a country fiddle. Of course, he is also fully capable of trilling the strings with great classical skill. In live concerts he lays down recorded loops and plays over them to great effect, and as usual, his lyrics are clever and artful. There are a few tracks here that I am not in love with—for example “Fatal Shore” is a bit too plodding and monotonous for my taste—but the great majority of the album is very satisfying.

Here is the official video for "Eyeoneye":

This is a very good amateur video of a live performance of both "Desperation Breeds.." and "Dance Caribe":




Because I am even more clueless about local bands than I am about music in general, this is a very sporadically given award, but this year there was an obvious choice. Once dubbed “America’s Best Unsigned Band,” The Reducers have been the pride of New London for over three decades, playing hard driving punk-inspired rock and roll. Like most people who live in the area, I knew who the Reducers were, but I never saw them play until Sailfest 2011, not long before the news of Steve Kaika’s illness emerged. Steve’s far too early passing brings a great artistic story to an end, but the music of the Reducers will remain with us for as long as we want to hear it. GUITARS, BASS, & DRUMS was the group’s last studio album and a kind of crowning achievement. As guitarist Hugh Birdsall put it, G, B, & D “sounds to me like what we wanted to sound like 30 years ago.” There are many great songs here, but for me “Don’t Ya Wanna” characterizes the joyful righteousness that is at the core of all good rock ’n roll.  

Put me in a cab,
Drop me off downtown
Get me to a night spot
Put me in a crowd
‘Cuz there’s a band that’s playing somewhere,
And that’s the place I wanna be,
You can sit there if you want to
With your reality TV.

Don’t ya wanna,
Don’t ya wanna,
Don’t ya wanna rock?

Here is a clip of The Reducers as many will remember them playing "Don't Ya Wanna" at Sailfest in 2010:



In 1974, when I was a graduate student in English literature and a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University, I got into a bit of trouble when I canceled my freshman comp class to see Bob Dylan and The Band at the St. Louis Arena. Leon Russell made a surprise appearance during the final set. The show was definitely worth the nasty note from my supervisor a few days later: "Attending a jazz concert is hardly an acceptable reason for canceling class." I respectfully disagreed. This wasn't just any jazz band.

Levon Helm’s death this year reminded us all of the unique sound he created with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson. Released in 1968, MUSIC FROM BIG PINK is 34th on the Rolling Stone list of “500 Best Albums of All Time” and contains three songs written or co-written by Dylan. This was The Band’s debut effort, and it includes the classics “Tears of Rage,” “The Weight,” “Chest Fever,” “Wheel’s on Fire,” and “I Shall Be Released.” Listening to these songs again I am struck by the way Helm’s vocal style helped produce the special emotional appeal of the ballads this group did so well.  

Here are The Band and The Staple Singers singing "The Weight" in Martin Scorsese's documentary "The Last Waltz":

And just for comparison here are Wilco, Nick Lowe, and Mavis Staples (35 years later) in a backstage rehearsal of the same song this past December. Both versions have a tendency to make the listener quite happy:

Finally, to wrap it all up, here are Glen Hansard (of Swell Season, Once, The Frames), Lisa Hannigan, and the aforementioned John Smith playing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in an architectural artifacts shop/museum in Chicago.

Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan & John Smith cover The Band

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

2011 Sky Full of Holes by Fountains of Wayne

This choice was hard to resist. Fountains of Wayne won the very first Album of the Summer in 2003 for Welcome Interstate Managers, which included the hit single “Stacy’s Mom.” Furthermore, Sky Full of Holes is being released in the U.S. today (8/2/2011), so the timing is perfect. Repeat winners are not an ideal circumstance, but there is precedent: Regina Spektor is a two-time winner. Although this album is a mild departure from their earlier efforts, Williams College alums Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingswood continue to pump out clever, punchy songs. Rolling Stone recently called FOW “rock's sharpest storytellers.”

Most importantly, the thirteen tracks of Sky Full of Holes include some great music. This is FOW’s first album since 2007, and the songs show a bit more maturity. For example, there are slightly fewer references to characters who are drunk. As usual, FOW have no problem meeting the happiness criteria. Well over half of the songs are upbeat driving pop numbers typical of the band. There is plenty of humor, but Schlesinger and Collingswood are also starting to probe deeper, more melancholy subjects. Indeed, the last song on the album, and one of my favorites, “Cemetery Guns,” is about a military funeral. Similarly, "Hate to See You Like This” is a beautiful ringing ballad about someone trying to help a friend out of a depression. But there are also great alt-pop numbers that could easily be radio singles, including “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” and “Dip in the Ocean.“ The best story pieces are “Action Hero,” about a Walter Mittyish middle-aged father of three who is beginning to buckle under the stress, ”Richie and Rubin,” about two failed entrepreneurs who solicit investments from friends, and “Acela,” about a guy trying to get home to Boston. Finally, “A Road Song,” is an innocent country-ish number about a touring band member calling home to tell his girl he’s written a song for her. America, the aging casino-circuit rock band recorded a cover of “A Road Song” before Sky Full of Holes was released.

Here is the first music video to come out of Sky Full of Holes, the song "Summer Place":

This is "Dip in the Ocean" from FOWs July 28, 2011 appearance on the Late Night with David Letterman:

You may ask, “If Sky Full of Holes is being released today, how is it you can make this announcement so quickly?” Two reasons. First, due to the long gap between albums, several of these songs have been part of FOW’s concert repertoire for some time. Emily and I heard ”Cemetery Guns” and “A Road Song” two years ago at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY, and a number of the new songs have been on YouTube for a while. More importantly, however, FOW released a streaming version of the entire album on their Facebook page a week prior to the official release date.

2011 Album of the Summer Honorable Mentions

I and Love and You by The Avett Brothers

Some of you already know about this alternate country / folk rock group from Concord, North Carolina, but they were new to me. This album was released back in September of 2009 and has received considerable acclaim. Once I got ahold of it, I played it compulsively for a couple of months. The music is beautifully rendered, and the lyrics are frequently thoughtful and moving. Many of the songs deal with issues of loss and disappointment, but others like “January Wedding” and “Laundry Room” are blushingly innocent love songs. Several of the happy songs feature banjos. The infectious, uptempo “Heart Like a Kick Drum” includes the sweet lyric “It’s not the chase that I love / It’s me following you.”

The heavier songs on I and Love and You tackle philosophical themes, and they are often quite successful. The best of these are “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” and “A Perfect Space.” The latter is a beautiful ballad about getting older and discovering what you want out of life:

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

The vocals are frequently infused with the brother harmonies of Scott and Seth Avett, and the results are consistently rewarding. I and Love and You is an ambitious album that succeeds on every track. Thank you to the Avett Brothers. They produced my Album of the Autumn and Winter and gave me many hours of pleasure. If you have not already come across them, you should give them a listen.

Here is the official video of the title song:

And here is a great version of "Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise":

Myna Birds by Gavin Glass

Ireland continues to be fertile ground for contemporary music. Damien Rice and The Swell Season have received AOTS Honorable Mentions in previous years, and this Irish entry is equally wonderful. Gavin Glass, while a star in Ireland, is not yet well-known in the U.S., and MYNA BIRDS is only available as a download here (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Glass plays in Lisa Hannigan’s band (more about Hannigan below) and has produced two albums on his own. He combines country, folk rock, and big band sounds (there are horns) to produce some wonderful songs on this album.

Glass’ dominant genre is the tragic love song, well-exemplified by the opening track “Just Like Rome.” He is often plaintively tragic in songs like “Just Like Rome,” Wake Up,” “State of Emergency,” and the wonderful but somewhat inscrutable “Minor Miseries.” He moves into the angry tragic mode on “Bleed” and especially on the deliciously belligerent “Awake on the Weekend,” which includes some great Keith Richards-like whining guitar work.

Finally, the title track, “Myna Birds” is a lovely ditty written about a friend’s young child. Here is a high quality video of a live performance of this and another outstanding song “Slight of Hand” (I have spent some time pondering that spelling):

Despite his European origins, Glass’ music has many country overtones. He wears a western tie and vest. Of course, American country music has European roots that extend to Ireland, so he’s entitled.

This album does not meet the Album of the Summer happy criterion, but it is wonderfully evocative and creative. Highly recommended. Glass’ previous album, Gavin Glass & The Holy Shakers is also great.

The Unfazed by Dolorean

This time it’s country music from Portland, Oregon. This is the kind of mournful music you would expect to hear at a roadside juke joint where Budweiser is the house drink and nobody is dancing—except perhaps for one couple who just met tonight and are now asleep on each other’s shoulders. Hard-luck, pissed-off, breakup songs that are fairly unremittingly hopeless, but so, so wonderful. Once in a while Dolorean slips up and writes a song with an upbeat message, as in the title track “Unfazed,” as well as “Sweet Boy” and “These Slopes Give Me Hope,” but the music is reliably doleful throughout. The wistful “If I Find Love” fluctuates between hope and despair. The line “If I find love I’m gonna make it mine” later morphs into “I have a habit of getting in too deep / If I find love it’ll be the end of me.” A crawling tempo and a sweetly crying fiddle at the breaks give this song great drama and substance. If you’re in that kind of mood, The Unfazed is a great album.

Here is a live performance of the title song:

Alpochalypse by Weird Al Yankovic

I am going to go out on a limb here and say I think Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. A national treasure, even. He has been at it for thirty years, and when he releases a new album it is an event. Alpochalypse does not disappoint. High musical production values combined with Yankovic’s amazingly clever lyrics and clear enunciation make this another great collection. Alpochalypse includes classic Weird Al parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (“Perform This Way”), Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (“TMZ”), Miley Cirus’ “Party in the USA” (“Party in the CIA”), and the B.o.B./Bruno Mars number “Nothin’ on You” (“Another Tattoo”). The video of the Lady Gaga song is creepily hilarious.

As much as Weird Al is known for his parodies, some of his most impressive songs are original compositions. I love “Hardware Store” from Poodle Hat, which features some amazing speed singing. Alpochalypse introduces several clever originals including “Skipper Dan,” about a failed actor working at an amusement park, “Craigslist,” which is both a sequel to the earlier “eBay” and a generic Doors parody, and “Ringtone,” about a guy with a remarkably annoying one. But without question, my favorite song on the album is the enormously funny “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me,” which is best experienced by watching the official video below. This is one of the happiest albums I came across this year. You will laugh.

And here is the best song on the album, "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me":


Two Sides by Above/Below

Conflict of interest statement: Among the members of this phenomenal funk-jazz-hiphop-fusion group are faculty colleagues and friends David Dorfman (baritone sax) and Gabe Chandler (vocals). No matter. In my unbiased (wink) opinion A/B is the best thing to come out of New London, Connecticut since The Reducers. Great horns, soaring guitar work, and the amazing rhymes of MC Stat (AKA Professor Chandler). Plus, I really like their politics. The album is very appropriate for summer. The songs are upbeat and danceable. I particularly like “J Street,” “Socialist Todd,” and “The People’s Bailout.” Earlier this summer Two Sides won a New London Whalie Award for Album of the Year, and now A/B can add an Album of the Summer Local Artist Award to their accomplishments.

Here's a video of Above/Below's performance of "Socialist Todd" at Sailfest 2011:

Two Sides is available through the band’s website as a “name your price” digital download, or for $10 you can order the hardcopy CD. On the website, you will also find the band’s two-song album featuring “Things Get Better” and “Alchemy.”

Rumor has it, now that Gabe Chandler has returned to California, Above/Below may be defunct. Let me add my voice to all those who cry, “Say it ain’t so!”

That's it for this year. See you next summer.


Monday, May 24, 2010

2010 The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe

This is the first R&B Album of the Summer, but as soon as you call ARCHANDROID R&B—or anything else—you risk misclassifying it. Yes, the single, “Tightrope,” is an upbeat funky number that consciously echoes James Brown—grunts and all—but the album includes dance tunes, romantic pop ballads, orchestral rock, dreamy techno numbers, and a traditional British folk song. There is something for everyone: 18 tracks and 70 minutes of music.

THE ARCHANDROID is a futuristic concept album presenting the middle two “suites”—each introduced with an overture—of a four-part work drawing inspiration from Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film Metropolis and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, among other sources. The album is exceptionally ambitious and is successful at fulfilling almost all its ambitions.

This is Janelle Monáe’s first full-length effort, and although she is still relatively new on the scene, she has been energetically hyped with appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and American Idol. She received a 2009 Grammy nomination in the category of Best Urban/Alternative Performance for “Many Moons,“ a song from her earlier extended play release METROPOLIS. THE ARCHANDROID was produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs and includes appearances by Outcast’s Big Boi, among others. Monáe is a singer, songwriter, and dancer, and her stage performances owe much to Michael Jackson. She moonwalks. The album easily fits criterion #2 (happy). You often feel like dancing because several of the songs are, in fact, dance numbers.

In addition to “Tightrope,” my favorites are the Michael Jackson-like “Locked Inside,” the driving “Cold War,” “Come Alive,” which has been compared to both “Thriller” and “The Monster Mash,” the light robot ditty “Wondaland,” and the beautiful love song “Say You’ll Go,” whose bell-like piano ending includes a bit of Claude Debussy’s “Clair du Lune.” This album takes some time to absorb, but it does not disappoint. Janelle Monáe is a bright and powerful force.

This spectacular live performance of the classic "Smile" is not from THE ARCHANDROID. The song appeared on Monáe's earlier extended play, METROPOLIS , the first suite of her concept piece:

Janelle Monae Performing Smile June 2, 2010 at Chicago Theater from So Snewty on Vimeo.

2010 Album of the Summer Honorable Mentions


THE ADVENTURES OF BOBBY RAY may have been the Album of the Summer for many people. The hit song “Airplanes” has been all over the radio, and this debut album entered the Billboard 200 chart at #1. But “Airplanes” is just the beginning. There are lots of great songs here, including the dreamy “Don’t Let Me Fall“ and ”Ghost in the Machine” and the upbeat pop numbers “Nothing On You,” which features the sweet crooning of Bruno Mars, and “Magic.” The album certainly satisfies the happy criterion for Album of the Summer and came very close being chosen.

Here is the official video for "Airplanes" featuring Hayley Williams:

This is the somewhat goofy official video for "Nothin' On You." It's all about Bruno Mars:


The third studio album from this young chassid reggae performer is more pop than previous Matisyahu offerings and is wonderfully upbeat and idealistic. The fast-pace opening song “Smash Lies” is great, and the single “One Day,” with its message of peace is quite infectious. “I Will Be Light” is a similarly bright and spiritual anthem. Although the album was released last summer, the single “One Day” has gotten play throughout the year. I last heard it during the awards ceremony following the final match of the World Cup. Thanks to Ursula Bailey, who gave me my first copy of a Matisyahu album, and Eli Blinderman for alerting me to “One Day” and LIGHT.

Here is the official video for "One Day":

And a live performance of "Smash Lies." I love to see him dancing around on stage:

Matisyahu at the Elemental Experience, Smash Lies from Panman Productions on Vimeo.