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.


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