The fact that ‘The Next Day‘ was released with no warning at all was remarkable enough in it’s own right but even the biggest David Bowie fan could not have expected such a consistently brilliant album.
“David Bowie returned unexpectedly after nearly 10 years of silence upon which much speculation was had (depression, lack of inspiration, fear of the illness had in ‘last tour?). The lineup is the same as on his last releases ‘Hours‘, ‘Heathen and ‘Reality‘, and the trusty Tony Visconti is confirmed again on production duties. ’The Next Day’ turns out to be a gem of absolute value, with a handful of superb songs, like the nostalgic and hopeful “Where Are We Now” or the already classic “The Stars Are Out Tonight” – Mario
“I loved this album after probably the third listen, but as a Bowie devotee for years, there was never really any chance that I wouldn’t. I have tried and failed to put my finger on where ‘The Next Day‘ fits in amongst his past albums and various reincarnations, but the closest I can come is that it reminds me of everything I love about weird but amazing songs like “Life on Mars,” but with a steady, rocking groove that extends through each track. It is deliciously melodramatic and yet feels subdued and mature, like Ziggy Stardust growing older and wiser.
Included in the Cougar Microbes albums of 2012 here.
Biffy Clyro – ‘Blackened Sky B-sides‘
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the band’s first album, a huge deluxe vinyl edition of ‘Blackened Sky’ was released earlier this year. The second disc (also available for download) is all rare B-sides, most previously unreleased and all expectedly amazing.
Mumford & Sons – ‘Babel‘
The band didn’t break particularly new ground with this release, but when the previously broken ground is so great, maybe it’s not necessary. ‘Babel‘ is tried and true folk songwriting genius, and I love it.
Guster – ‘On the Ocean‘ EP
This is only 6 songs, but I love Guster so much that it still makes the top 10. Guster was once a little indie jam band from Massachusetts, who I discovered circa my 17th birthday by stumbling across an unmarked mix CD in a McDonalds parking lot. They are pretty famous now – especially if you’re into granola and eco-friendly tour buses.
Fleetwood Mac – ‘Preaching the Blues’
I made this little discovery (thanks Spotify) and haven’t stopped listening since. The album is a live recording of a Fleetwood Mac concert in February 1971 (post- Peter Green, pre- Stevie Nicks), but it’s all straight blues. The sound quality is amazing, but I think Best in Show goes to Christine McVie on the keys.
Fun – ‘Some Nights’
My pop music guilty pleasure of the year. The album is full of exuberant harmonies and over-enthusiastic percussion, even if the lyrics might be a little on the melancholy side. It feels a little like a modern day, ultra-light version of Queen (minus the searing guitar solos).
Paul Simon – ‘Graceland‘
While this amazing album probably makes my lifetime top 10, it makes this year’s list because a special 25th anniversary extended edition was released earlier in 2012. With a few previously unreleased demos and bonus tracks, as well as a short audio clip about the making of the title track, the new release is most likely worth the hype.
The Dandy Warhols – ‘This Machine‘
I fall in and out of love with the Dandy Warhols, but this album is pure awesome. It varies from track to track, with elements of glam-era Bowie and grunged up MarcyPlayground – and always that token Dandy Warhols weirdness. My personal favourite is their cover of “16 Tons,” a 1940’s Americana ‘mountain song’ about the life of a coal miner.
Led Zeppelin – ‘Celebration Day’
This album is the audio recording from Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion show at London’s O2 Arena. Since I tried desperately and failed miserably to get tickets to that show, it was a given that I’d go for this when it was finally released in 2012. The track listing is pure greatest hits (my favourite “Good Times Bad Times” as the opening track), and John Bonham’s son Jason did all the drumming.
Tallest Man on Earth – ‘There’s No Leaving Now‘
This album is simply unmissable; singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson is a Sweden-based mountain of talent. If you listen to one song, make it the title track – it best showcases his unique voice, stellar songwriting, and penchant for recording everything live, as opposed to on isolated tracks. I loved the live sound of the vocals and guitar on the album, but it also means just a little bit more (to me) that each astounding vocal is one continuous take, and not spliced to perfection like most modern tracks. I hesitantly name this my MVP of the year, if only in the hopes that you will all go listen to it right now.
Having released two albums in 2012 it’s quite easy to add “prolific” to the list of reasons to be jealous of Andrew Bird. ‘Break It Yourself‘ remains an undoubted highlight reproducing all the elements you associate with his past work- naturally violins and whistling- but can be considered stripped back by the standards set by the talented multi-instrumentalist.
Emily said ”I gave this album a full run down in May, but the short version is that ‘Break it Yourself‘ is a folky alternative masterpiece. The songwriting is near flawless, and Bird is disgustingly talented in general”.
It was a year ago this week that Gotye released ‘Making Mirrors‘ in the UK, the album that unleashed upon us one of the catchiest tunes to ever spread its viral wings over the internet: “Somebody that I Used to Know.” In the UK it gained momentum through word of mouth and social media shares, but by the time it hit the US and went to number 1 in April 2012 (thanks Glee), it had already been glorified, parodied, and meme-ified for months over here. Thanks to the intercontinental split in my social media connections, I got hit by the wave of shares twice. While the US was spanking itself over the head with that amazing video, my Facebook wall (sorry, ‘Timeline‘) was already blowing up with “Some Rabbi that I Used to Know.” And that group of people who all wanted to cover Gotye but only had that one guitar.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not totally psyched about all this; I am more than anything amazed that me and popular music have for once agreed upon a great song, probably one of the best of the year. I also might be one of the few remaining humans with ears who can listen to that song without cringing, as I hear from both continents that over-playing has crushed its initial novelty charm. Have over-zealous DJs the world over ruined Gotye for posterity? I (admitted fangirl) have faith that the almost extreme diversity and versatility of his songbook can carry him through the threatening waters of one-hit wonderland, but only time will tell.
I think, at least, that we don’t need to worry that fame and success have gone to Wally de Backer‘s shaggy head. When “Somebody that I Used to Know” became viral, I inwardly worried that it would turn into the next “Sex on Fire,” the song that catapulted Kings of Leon to enormous fame and success, while simultaneously revealing them to be an ungrateful and snobbish pack of backwoods hipsters who distinguish between ‘real‘ fans (pre-’Only by the Night‘, of course) and ‘mainstream‘ fans, and still find time to scoff dismissively at their own hit song.
But happily Wally seems as down to earth as ever, and you can imagine that the success of this one virally massive tune won’t change much about his recording digs (a barn) and production process (he records and produces primarily by himself). It should also be noted that ‘Making Mirrors‘ was not his first big album if you’re talking about Australia or Belgium, and “Hearts a Mess” was a hit single in those countries (thanks in part to another amazing video) long before stop frame animation body paint was blowing up YouTube.
Gotye himself recently released a YouTube remix called “Somebodies: The YouTube Orchestra.” The act itself is irresistibly apropos; the remix video is assembled from clips of covers, instructional videos, and parodies posted to YouTube by others. The process seems apt because this practice of layering samples and borrowed cuts is how de Backer originally constructed the song. But the video also feels like a nod of notice, appreciation, and perhaps even gratitude to the medium and participants who boosted a small Australian success story into a worldwide musical phenom with the click of a button.
The year I was born, Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland‘ sold 14 million copies worldwide. The next year it won a Grammy for Album of the Year, and then Record of the Year in 1988 for the title track. After that I heard “You Can Call Me Al” a lot growing up, and, because of its spectacular synth intro, filed it away as 80’s pop they still play on the radio. It wasn’t till high school, when I discovered the simple, folky songwriting masterpiece that is “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” that I began to go back and investigate the sometimes bizarre, sometimes perfect, but always inspired tracks on this album.
Now there’s a word that I find myself using again and again to describe them—magic. It’s not a particularly good word because it evokes absolutely nothing in the reader’s mind; but if you’ve heard an album with perfect chemistry, energy, a balance struck between modern and old-timey sounds, then you probably know what I mean by the word.
It is a rare album that combines African chanting and drumming with Sun Records-era strumming and funk-flavoured bass plucking. Simon’s choice to work with South African musicians, despite the world’s anti-apartheid cultural boycott, raised some controversy, but in the end the album introduced these musicians (some of whom would gain independent success, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo) to a global audience.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Graceland’s release, Legacy Recordings have issued various box sets, vinyl goodies, and bonus features. The completely remastered original album now includes 5 bonus tracks, including a keyboard demo for “You Can Call Me Al,” a quieter, funkier, bass-centric “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and an early draft of “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”
The real gem is an audio narrative by Simon, discussing the writing process for “Graceland” (the song, not the album). He talks about the difficulties of working with non-western musicians (a problematic lack of minor chords), but also the invaluable perspective of hearing American country music as perceived by outsiders. Eventually the process lead to the classic ‘southern travelling music’ sound that flavours the title song, and suffuses the entire album as a result. Whether to Graceland or under African skies, the songs tell tales of wanderers and travellers, and the music mirrors this nomadic spirit.
The crowning jewel of the rerelease is a feature-length documentary making the film festival rounds now: “Under African Skies,” by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger. It chronicles the process, controversy, and success of Graceland, and follows Simon back to post-apartheid South Africa, 25 years after he first recorded there under international censure.
Even though the album was written about a very specific, turbulent time in world affairs, much of the subject matter remains (depressingly) relevant today. In terms of sound, ‘Graceland‘ manages an impressive feat: it recollects perfectly the decade in which it was recorded, with sly references to early 50’s country music, and at the same time doesn’t sound at all dated or unlikely now. Not something you can say about a lot of 25 year old albums.
As a fairly mediocre musician myself, Andrew Bird is typically the kind of performer I love to hate— he was a talented violinist at the precocious age of four; he plays every instrument under the sun with perfect ease; he has headed successful bands that easily stride the gamut from pre-war jazz, to zydeco, to blue grass infused folk. Oh, and he’s a virtuoso whistler. And yet I find myself completely disarmed by his March 2012 release, “Break It Yourself“.
I think it must be the bare sincerity of Bird’s songwriting that makes this folk rock album so irresistibly charming; it is ingenuous and whimsical, free from rigidity or any reliable conventions. Much like the most recent Bon Iver album, several of the songs flout the structures of modern songwriting—stretching into expansive vocal swells, or else swooping into low orchestral waves. I can almost see my music theory professors shaking their heads in amazed confusion.
And how to achieve all this without the appearance of pretension? Bird punctuates the track listing with simple, stripped down ballads, or friendly, upbeat jaunts. Apart from guitar, he uses a variety of instruments, from lap steel to violin, and even his impressive whistling abilities, to buoy the songs from classic folk to something newer and infinitely more fun. After completely failing to narrow the tracks down to a few favourites, I can only offer up a few which I think typify the varied talents and imagination that appear in every song.
“Lusitania” is what I imagined Andrew Bird’s album would sound like when I first heard of him—sweeping, simple melodies, lifted more by pleasing harmonies than by any bold instrumentation. “Danse Carribe” is the type of track that would kill at a festival, picking up from a slow, bare opening to a frisky full-band hoedown, complete with fiddle. “Near Death Experience Experience” is a haunting and unusual song (it floats somewhere between sensual and dark), helped along by a female vocalist who appears on several tracks. And “Sifters” is the perfect example of Bird’s ability to craft a love song so heartbreakingly sweet that it is almost a lullaby.
The album as a whole is a lesson in perfect sequencing. The variety in “Break it Yourself” could be almost chaotic; but the record is arranged so that each song feels like both a respite and a continuation of the previous track. Bird even added a prelude (vocal), interlude (strings), and postlude (bells, and a few cheeky crickets), which draw attention to the album as a collective work rather than a jumble of individual tracks.
At a time when many bands add layer upon layer to a track until it is bursting with instruments and vocal effects, Bird’s restraint and pared down simplicity is refreshingly modest. In the end, I am willing to overlook his disgusting monopoly on musical talent because he doesn’t rely on it to lift his work above the usual standard—it is the newness and ingenuity of every track that sets them apart.
When tickets went on sale (very quietly) for Gotye’s gig at the small and gorgeously historic Wilton’s Music Hall, I had a hunch it would be my first and last chance to see Australian wonderboy Wally de Backer. The buzz was building (thanks to that ubiquitous music video) and pretty soon it would mean bigger venues, worse sound, and higher ticket prices. A friend had speculated that it might be a dull show (“just a guy and a laptop of samples”) but I went with high hopes to the worn music hall.
Wilton’s Music Hall is what all old great venues wish they were—unrestored. There are water stains on the vaulted ceiling, little paint left on the carved balcony, exposed brick walls and rough wooden floors. It is the oldest grand music hall in the world, built in 1858, and has since been used as a Methodist missionary, rag warehouse, and shelter during the bombing of London. It now gets occasional grants for restoration and maintenance, but I hope they don’t ever get around to fixing it up too much. That day it had been announced that “Somebody that I Used to Know” had reached #1 in the UK, so I felt pretty lucky to see Gotye with only about 150 other people.
The stage setup seemed a bit strange until I remembered that Wally is first and foremost a drummer, since his time with Melbourne rock trio The Basics. The layout (a nearly-full kit sideways at the front of the stage) allowed him to drum from standing, when not singing or sampling. After charming and adorable opener Gabrielle Aplin’s acoustic set, Gotye kick-started the show with “Eyes Wide Open,” the galloping first single from 2011’s ‘Making Mirrors‘. It was an ideal opening tune because Wally got to do a bit of everything—sing, twiddle with a sampler, and drum viciously. Between that and the fully-involved band, any concerns of the guy-with-a-laptop scenario were quickly dispelled.
The set included a great mix of highs and lows in terms of tempo and energy—slow jams like “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Bronte” (the latter performed with help from TheWebb Sisters (Leonard Cohen’s vocalists) punctuated the upbeat romps that give the album its joyful Motown feel. The only real downside was the flow of pushy-shovey photogs nosing in front to get their shot, but I guess that is to be expected the week you go #1.
I was curious to see how the band would tackle “Somebody that I Used to Know” without Kimbra to vocalize the second half; my YouTube trolling had told me that either A) Kimbra would surprise us all and slink out from backstage to great squeals of audience excitement, or B) they would line up her vocal tracks and the band would awkwardly bob along. But when the moment came, Wally introduced a friend from Belgium, none other than Noémie Wolfs of Hooverphonic, to sing the part. She was perfection from the first note to the last wail, and actually looked a fair bit like Kimbra, so the song had all the lively energy and stage chemistry you could ask for.
The energy of the set and the audience seemed to increase throughout, so by the time they left the stage for four minutes to let you wonder about an encore, the hall was buzzing with anticipation. Gotye wisely capitalised on this excitement with an encore performance of three of the brightest, most clap-happy uptempo songs in his repertoire: “In Your Light” and “I Feel Better,” with audience participation hand claps, and finally “Learnalilgivinanlovin.” The last, from his previous album, has a Golden Oldies sound with a driving drum track—the perfect closer for a show that had ranged through the last six decades in terms of inspiration, samples, and feel.
I read a review the next day in the Standard by John Aizlewood that was more than usually bad. Normally I’d chalk that up to the generally poor quality of anything that finds its way onto the pages of that evening-commute shoe-rag, but I’ve seen this review circulated and used by many other sites and papers. The bit that bothered me about this review was that Aizlewood attempted to steer Gotye in the direction of a one-hit wonder, the wide-eyed Aussie startled by commercial success with his one fantastically popular single.
He literally suggested that Gotye would have trouble filling the 70-minute set, since surely the crowd would only know that one song. The problem with his theory is that this show at Wilton’s sold out in less than 2 hours back in November—long before “Somebody That I Used To Know” was charting anywhere but in Australia. His assumption must also seem silly to any who attended the show, since the highlight of the night, the song that really brought down the house, was actually “Hearts a Mess,” the haunting single off Gotye’s equally stunning but more downbeat album ‘Like Drawing Blood‘, released back in 2006.
I also read an idiotic review by someone from the Guardian who referred to “Somebody That I Used To Know” as having “minimal production.” Now, no Gotye song could possibly deserve such praise, since a track crafted entirely through production and post-effects hardly qualifies as ‘minimal’ in the production department. Secondly, Wally willingly admits that the single itself took 9 months to prepare and get exactly right, even before adding Kimbra’s vocals—longer than anything else on the album.
I guess if I had to throw stones at every concert review written by a journalist who knew very little about the band in question, I’d have, well, killer biceps on my throwing arm.
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here
2. Adele – 21
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here
3. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here
4. Rufus Wainwright – House of Rufus
A massive 19-disc box set of all the magic of Rufus—live performances, albums, singles and b-sides. Even though I could never afford this, it makes the list for best releases. And my Christmas wish list.
5. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here.
6. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
I have always surrendered to anything written by Paul Simon, but this album has charm and wit in spades. He even managed to hold back on that penchant for African drumming.
7. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here.
8. City & Colour – Little Hell
Although I’m the first to admit this album doesn’t top City & Colour’s previous efforts, it says a lot that it still crushes most other releases of the year.
9. Cake – Showroom of Compassion
Made the Cougar Microbes Top Albums of 2011 list here.
10. J Mascis – Several Shades of Why
I’m not usually brave enough to name a favourite album, but this year it was easy. Mascis brings the power of Dinosaur Jr, the simplicity of bare and honest lyrics, and then his godlike guitar virtuosity, to bear in this true 2011 masterpiece.