Monday, December 29, 2014

Seth's Top Picks for 2014

Ahem.  (tap tap tap)

Okay - thanks for showing up. Before we get started, here’s the annual disclaimer:

These are my opinions. I, like you, have them. I am not an authority on this subject unless you think I am. If you already think I am, my words might carry some weight. If you don’t, or you arrived here randomly, you may be quite objective, or you may disagree with me most vehemently. Tomato. It’s just a blog.

To that point: I’ve been hearing “legit” music writers gripe about how bloggers are bringing down their art form. I feel for them, but it's like this: If you're going to write a comprehensive review of a musical work, you should have an actual comprehension of music. I see writers trying to sound intelligent by attempting comparisons that make absolutely no sense, and using terminology that they are obviously unfamiliar with. Writers, this undermines any sense of authority you were hoping to create. It's why I generally refrain from writing about sports and civic policy. Just a heads up.

I am passionate about music, and I respond to music that sounds passionate; it’s got to move me. I think that’s the point. That excludes a lot of the mainstream crap from the modern radio airwaves. If thats what you enjoy, you may not recognize much here.... but you will probably like something listed here much more than the crap on said airwaves.

I am not a total curmudgeon. I think people are still writing great songs. But far too often, they are not capturing moments on recordings that emphasize the greatness of what they wrote. To me, a great album is one that has great songs that have been performed well, captured well, and rendered faithfully.

Since this past summer, I have had three of my young students ask me if I have heard the “AWESOME” music on the 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' soundtrack. Man, that record is blowing young minds.  It’s fresh; it’s engaging; it’s like nothing these kids have EVER HEARD BEFORE!!

And of course, the release dates for the songs on that soundtrack range from 1968 to 1979.
Groundbreaking, yo.

There’s something to this. Devaluing music has created a race to the bottom. So many acts are just rehashing the lowest common denominator, and are enjoying the attention much more than the pursuit of art.

It has never been more important to support greatness when you hear it. I mean *directly*. Don’t think that using a streaming service means you’re supporting artists. I mean *financially*. Taylor Swift was the only artist to go platinum in 2014 — figure out what that means for artists at the low-selling end of the spectrum, and spend your money accordingly!

To listen to a release, click on the picture, and it'll take you to iTunes. There, you can spend the same amount of money you would on a burrito, and make the world a better place for everyone.


Who knew this was coming? After his eight year absence, I opened my inbox one day to read that Rice has returned to us. As it happens, it is with an album so simmering, so patient, so dynamic, and so gorgeous, that there is no chance commercial radio will come anywhere near it.  Thank God.

Regardless of genre, style, and production, there is the “goose bump” factor in great music that comes from one element alone: performance.  Many great albums stay with us throughout the years for no reason other than the memory of that “goose bump moment” in one of the songs. It’s one of the reasons to stay alive; to experience that reaction to a piece of musical art. “Great" albums are marked when they contain one of these rare and gripping moments. “Extraordinary" records have two or three.

This album holds eight songs, and each of them will do it to you at least once.

These are not tight, poppy folk numbers… these are the orchestrated movements of a symphony. You may think you’ve listened long enough to a particular track to have an idea of that song’s direction; to know its identity, but before long, you will realize you’ve been mistaken. There is only one song here under five minutes long. Half the album features songs over six minutes long. The longest selection is just over nine and a half minutes long. It’s an album of focused exploration, and it is powerful.

Every single song leaves me breathless. Producer/legend Rick Rubin has created musical cinema, and while each number is a piece unto itself, the album’s true power lies in its scope; if you have an hour to yourself and a pair of good headphones, it’s a wonderfully fulfilling way to spend time.  Listen to it on a long drive… but not a short one, as this is that record that compels you to stay in the car until it’s over — to make people late for appointments or workdays.

For all I can do to gush about the majesty of the arrangements and production, I should mention (for the sake of the young people who wont remember him) that Rice is one of the most powerful songwriters currently existing as a human. These songs will transport you to exactly where he wants. He’s deft - in four lines, he can paint a scene for you with more immediacy and detail than others could express in entire songs. He knows when to sing the same line again, but when to inflect it just enough to change its meaning. His love becomes yours, and then when he sings of loss, you plummet with him.

Be careful: this doesn’t lose its power with repeat listening; it gets stronger.  I’m usually fond of picking a song or two for casual listeners to check out to get an idea of a record before they dive in. I can’t do that with this album; I literally made myself anxious trying to decide on a song to mention. That’s because there is no place for “casual” listeners here. Just trust. This is gorgeously upsetting and gorgeously uplifting in equal measure. Experience it as a whole.

This record is undeniable — it’s on everyone's year-end lists, and with good reason. This is some of the most exciting guitar rock in years. This is a guitar-driven record; there is guitar EVERYWHERE...  yet you might not realize it, because said guitars are processed to hell and back with space-age-awesome-sauce. They're weird... and super cool.

You’d think the popular noisy-guitar bands would already have made something this cool, but no one has, because for all the bravado that so many noisy-guitar bands muster, almost none of them are funky. Nothing is more compelling than a noisy sound that is also a funky sound. There, hipster bands; I just explained why the non-NPR-listening general public hates your music. Fix it. Start by listening to this record on repeat.

On first listen, I wrote down the following: “if Lori Anderson could sing and was produced by early Prince”.  I’d like to think that if Annie Clark read that, she’d be pleased, but to clarify: she doesn’t *sound* like Anderson. Clark is a tremendous singer with a remarkable voice. It bears a passing resemblance to young Sinead O’Connor, but is suddenly capable of flexing into a myriad of weird characters. Some songs showcase a nasty snarl; some an angelic purity; she is icy and detached at some points; aching and emotive at others.

Lyrically, she inhabits her own space. This is a viscerally intelligent (and weird) artist whose Twitter feed is as interesting as her music ("All I want for Christmas is transcranial direct current stimulation”, reads a recent post). She has achieved a high degree of mass white-American appeal despite offering a song whose entire chorus involves chanting the phrase “Pray to Allah”.  Another song title is the name of the co-founder of the Black Panthers.  Another song focuses on someone Clark keeps comparing to a bad dog. The opening song is about getting naked in the desert and being chased by a snake. Another mentions masturbating in the same breath as taking out the garbage. And interspersed throughout the record are also candid confessions of heartache. This, from the same brain that is also responsible for the aforementioned guitar space-age-awesome-sauce.  Did I mention that weird Annie Clark IS St Vincent?

That's not to say that her studio band isn't ridiculous, because it is. Bobby Sparks on the Moog synthesizer is worth his weight in the platinum this album should earn. Between his lines and Clark’s occasional playing with an octave-effect, I don’t feel slighted at all by the album’s lack of a dedicated “bass player”. It’s got ass to spare.

The record also benefits enormously from two different drummers. McKenzie Smith makes a badass showing on uptempo twisto tracks like “Bring Me Your Loves” and the frenetic and relentless “Birth In Reverse”, while the funkier songs feature Homer Steinweiss, drummer for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. His grooves on “Rattlesnake” and “Digital Witness” will make you freak out in a fit of uncontrollable head-bobbing if you’re sensitive to such things. It's a study in how important using a live drummer is even when making music that relies on heavy processing. Despite the other elements drenched in production, the snares snap and pop, the kick drums are as cavernous as the hi-hats are crispy, and they propel every song to greatness.  If you haven’t already checked this record out, do so... and embrace the weird.

3. Prince - Art Official Age 

Prince is back as if he never left ...the eighties. I've been a fan ever since I heard “Delirious” in second grade. Can you relate? If your idea of Prince’s glory days are the albums that span “Controversy” (’81) to “Lovesexy” (’87), then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with “Art Official Age”. After two decades of hit-and-miss releases, I'll say this is the strongest record he’s made since the infamous, nameless love-symbol album of '92.

Give the Purple One a ton of credit. We hear legend after legend showing their age with decreased vocal prowess and drastic changes in timbre, but Prince still sounds like he did when he was twenty.  He’s still got every high note he ever wailed, he’s not afraid to prove it, and he doesn’t need auto-tune. That said, there’s no shortage of computerized vocal processing here. This *is* a Prince record, after all.

Bassists, listen up. Prince has always been one of the nastiest bass players to walk with a pimp-limp, but I haven't heard him light it up like this since the Black Album. There are no guitar solos anywhere on this collection, leaving a lot of room for him to stretch out on bass.  No need to nerd out on the details; just suffice to say, it’s funky.

Everything old is new again: much of popular music is currently using the production elements that Prince exploited in the eighties. Androgynous falsetto singing, the radical vocal pitch-shifting to create “characters", massive stacks of dissonant backing vocals, "video-game”-sounding synthesizers, and unabashed use of the electric guitar as a dagger instead of a cannon**….  It all makes now an ideal time for the master of this style to release new songs that elicit his classic moments. Each song on this album has aspects that hark back to the best periods in his epic career, yet that also show him in a contemporary light. In short, he has created a record that appeals to a new generation…  as well as the 'New Power Generation', who are now in their forties, and who miss his old music like crazy.

I don’t mean to give the impression that these songs are rehashes; I mean Prince is moving forward while reminding us of his history. I mean that while “Breakdown” sounds like he created it recently, it could have been written during the “Purple Rain” sessions; it also tips its hat to the arrangement style of songs on “1999”. “Breakfast Can Wait” could have been a part of “Sign ‘O The Times” at it’s sexiest… but it’s definitely modern.  “The Gold Standard” sounds like “Erotic City”, “Housequake”, and “Kiss” had a three-way lovechild — that is very much a contemporary sounding song (and more than a little risqué, when it gets to the end). I could go on, because you could listen to this collection all day and play “spot the throwback element”, but I suggest just taking it in. It’s an excellent trip.

**(Yes, George Clinton pioneered all these things with Parliament and Funkadelic, but Prince repackaged them for the eighties and made them his own)

As I publish this, “Black Messiah” has been out for just two weeks. If it maintains the level of excitement and affinity it has developed, it’s definitely going to be in the running for “Best of” lists… in 2015. For many albums, I’d be okay with that. I mean, there has to be a cut-off point SOMEWHERE, right? Music needs time to sink in, especially if it’s going to be compared to works that’ve been out for a much longer time.

Not this record. The plan was to release it in ’15, but D'Angelo wanted to respond to the Darren Wilson verdict, which will forever define the memory of 2014 for a great many people. So to trivialize his response by waiting a year to acknowledge it…?  No. Waiting that long would be injustice, and there’s been enough of that. That said, I’m not going to go on about the political ramifications of the record, because it is not just a political record. There’s a wide variety of sentiments here, and the different ways those sentiments are expressed are what make D'Angelo a remarkable artist.

First/foremost: Continued here is the rhythmic style that took the world by storm with the release of D’Angelo's last record, “Voodoo”. It was bold last time, and still is now, although presented in a new context with new grooves to explore. Not a whole lot of artists were ever able to steal this, so it may sound foreign to the next generation of listeners. What I'm talking about is what happens when the bass lays back so far behind the drummer that it’s nearly half a beat behind the rest of the band. This sort of “intentional slop” usually creates a rhythmic train wreck, but the skills of bassist Pino Paladino make it awe-inspiring in D’Angelo’s music. When Paladino plays with drummers Ahmir Thompson or James Gadson, the delay between their downbeats has the effect of “widening the target area” for the other players to land on, and instead of ruining the groove, it makes it deeper. For most people, this is a nigh impossible feat.

Years ago, Russell Elevado, the album’s engineer and producer, said that the material-in-progress sounded like "Parliament/Funkadelic meets the Beatles meets Prince” (though he was remiss in making no mention of Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye, each of whom are enormous influences). This rings true for about a third the record, notably the tracks “Ain’t That Easy”, “The Charade”, “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, and “Prayer”. Track #2, “1000 Deaths”, is one of those pieces that people like to talk about more than they like to listen to it. It is dense, distorted, poignant performance art, but if you can get through the first three minutes, it coalesces in its final moments into one of the album’s most important tracks when taken in context. Other tracks feel more like an extension of the offerings from “Voodoo”: “Sugah Daddy”, “Really Love”, “Back To The Future”, and “Betray My Heart”. Bluesy track “The Door” is one of the few bits of humor here, and serves to showcase D'Angelo's skills as a guitarist. The album’s majestic closer, “Another Life”, melds a laid-back funk groove with gospel… and sitar.

I have one criticism. It seems like the vocals were deliberately kept low in the mix on half the record. While that will prompt many to listen repeatedly to figure out the message, many more will just tune out.  That’s their loss, but he could have thrown us a bone and pushed the vocals up a bit...
because they’re AWESOME. For all his growls, howls, and acrobatics, never does enough time pass without a reminder of what an awesome singer D’Angelo is. He’s got incredible charisma, but he’s not just getting by on it; he’s as badass as ever.

Back in the eighties, I took in all the pop music. Everything from legends like Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson to one-hit wonders like Jane Childs (remember “I Don’t Wanna Fall In Love”?) and The System (remember “Don’t Disturb This Groove”?). I would marvel at the killer grooves and great hooks, but the rhythm section tracks were all done on drum machines and cheesy bass synths. I always wished someone would perform in same style with live musicians, because it would have sounded SO much better.

Three decades later, Dirty Loops has decided to prove that point.  A live drummer and bassist will make any groove hit harder than a sequencer, but when that drummer is Aron Mellergårdh and that bassist is Henrik Linder , there’s the added bonus of ridiculously ripping fills and breakdowns everywhere you look. It doesn’t hurt when singer Jonah Nilsson is a seasoned pro with a four octave range, either.

DL erupted on the scene as “that YouTube band who reharmonizes Justin Bieber and Britney Spears songs”, but that was a marketing gimmick. They’re actually a lot more like Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band (in their heyday). There are even a few Weather Report-like moments, all whizzing over the heads of 90% of the people who will hear them. :)

Dirty Loops was marketed as the bridge between fusion and pop. That’s true in as much as these are pop songs performed by ace musicians with screaming chops. Pop music says “don’t overplay; always stay simple and repeat the same thing forever or you’ll lose the people”. Fusion says, “go go go; explore explore explore and never look back”.  Dirty Loops certainly get repetitive, sometimes annoyingly so, but they also temper the repetition with a ton of syncopation and improvisation hitherto unheard of in synth-pop.

There are a few duds to exclude from your playlist: “Sexy Girls”, despite the rhythm section badassery, is pretty awful as a song, as is “Die For You”. For these to pieces of dreck to NOT offset my opinion of the album as a whole, the rest of it must be pretty wicked. It is. When they get the balance just right, such as on “Hit Me”, “Sayonara Love”, “Roller Coaster”, “Lost In You”, or the abso-slamming “The Way She Walks”, it is awesome to behold.

“A Dotted Line” opens with Sean Watkins, alone, strumming a slow, restrained, gospel-inflected country riff. Chris Thile doesn’t start singing for another ten seconds. He doesn’t touch his mandolin until just past 30 seconds in. Fifteen seconds after he does, Sara Watkins’ violin creeps in just before Mark Schatz thrums a short bass walk into the first chorus. Only then do we get the payoff: the two Watkins siblings and Thile raising their voices in brilliant harmony.

Not for nothing, but that takes forty-seven seconds to happen. That’s no barn-burner, no foot-stomper, no head-nodder. Nickel Creek listened to you; they heard your near-decade of pleading for them to PLEASE get back together and make another album. They did, but they’ve all done some growing up, so you don’t get to just crank it up and do a merry little two-step right away.  You still have to listen. At least that's what I got out of it. :)

When last we left these three, N.C. was Thile's commercial outlet for songs he wanted heard, so he was the one pushing the musical envelope. Nowadays he’s got Punch Brothers, where he gets to be as avant and weird as he wants, and two out of three of the songs he brought to this record sound relatively subdued. If you're the sort of listener who never got excited by Punch Brothers, you may see this as a positive, but regardless: this time the coolest moments belong to Sean, and they’re downright country. His “Christmas Eve” is flat out stellar, and “21st of May” is hysterical in the driest way possible.

Half of what made Nickel Creek awesome was their amazing instrumental prowess. Mixed into their brilliant vocal numbers have always been brilliant progressive bluegrass tunes. There are two on this collection, "Elsie" and "Elephant In The Corn". The latter is killer, with each member (plus guest bassist Edgar Mayer) letting loose like in the days of old. The former is... well, again; not bad, but very safe. It's pleasant and all, but it's not what I perceive this band as having found as its strength.

Unexpected highlight: "Hayloft", a cover of a tune by a Canadian band called Mother Mother. It's fun, groovy, and better than the original. It also features guest drums from Matt Chamberlain, which is hard to top.

They had nothing to prove. They could have completely phoned it in for this record and it still would have been wildly successful. They didn’t do that. Yes, this record feels safer than their earlier work, but they’re all adults now, it's still better than 90% of the music being released, and frankly, we’ll take what we can get.

This is what we call a “sleeper” — a piece of art that few people talk about, yet those who DO speak of it utter only effusive praise. Even the most culturally attuned people can miss out on a sleeper, only to discover it a year or more later, always with the indignant cry of, “Why didn’t I KNOW about this???"

Oberst has always been an interesting artist. He’s never shied away from any particular style. His work as Bright Eyes helped define indie rock, but also ventured into synth pop, emo, folk, and country. “Upside Down Mountain” continues his study in the juxtaposition of styles. At times it seems he’s channeling Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, even Harry Belafonte. But no matter what genre he’s inhabiting, his nasal, somehow-endearing-but-oh-so-everyman vocals always stick out conspicuously. When he was younger, it wasn’t by design; he just couldn’t sing very well. Nowadays though, his deliberate delivery is his calling card, and now that he CAN sing (and he really can; I’ll call him the most improved vocalist in contemporary music) he uses it to great effect all over this record.

Oberst has also always been a lyricist’s lyricist. If the compositional strength of this record was as consistent as the words he utters, this album would have been much higher up on the list. Not a song goes by that he doesn’t lay down something utterly profound, and this carries the first third of the record and makes for a wry and engaging experience. I had to get rid of my teaser list of “great lyric quotes from Upside Down Mountain” because it was making this entry twice as long as the rest of them. No lie: effortlessly great lyrics here. And yet, the record bogs down in the middle tracks; you may miss his excellent writing and phrasing due to the pedantic chord progressions and arrangements. By the end, he’s gathered steam again, but only the faithful will make it that far.

For those who don’t mind digging, this is a goldmine of insight about family, life, and love. 'Cliff’s Notes listeners' need not apply.

Let’s talk about synthesizers. Keyboards. They’ve never been more prevalent in popular music, and yet nobody can play them.  Sure; there are PIANISTS aplenty, and there are so many “ambient artists” I could vomit. In most genres, listeners respond to well-orchestrated arrangements of keyboards, and yet it’s rare to find an artist who can command the instrument in the orchestral context without being overly cheesy or boring. Consider that such an artist could also be an excellent singer with command of a beautiful, unique voice, and you’ve got the makings of a superstar. 

But Imogen Heap was never going to do the superstar thing; it's way beneath her. She's used the freedom granted by her artistic success to do things like engineering gloves that manipulate sound so that just by gesturing, she's creating music (the results can be heard here on "Me, the Machine"). This is not someone who winks at the camera for a diet soft drink commercial.

This album, created over a three-year period through a conversational process with her fans, is a labor of love. It features half a dozen songs that would have helped push any of her previous releases up the charts, but that wasn't her goal. A song like "Entanglement" finds Heap at her peak, bringing sensuality and subtlety to electronic music. "Lifeline", "Me, the Machine", and "Run-Time" pick up right where she left off on the Grammy-winning "Ellipse". But for every song with mass appeal, there are more challenging tracks like "Cycle Song" or "Climb To Sakteng" (completely instrumental, and written for a documentary about Bhutan). 

If you packed your attention span, this is a journey you might get a lot out of. Just think of the pop songs as the icing on the cake... and then enjoy the cake.

This album ruined me. I've had all year to let the effects wear off through repeated listening, and its power is still there. This collection of songs is actually, you might say, a “cast recording" from an off-Broadway one-woman show that Brooke performed for the better part of this year. The subject of the performance is her relationship with her mother, who she moved to New York to care for after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, and about reconciling her feelings about losing her mother, first to dementia, and then altogether.

The songs are a beautiful tribute, recounting the woman she grew up knowing. Some are from her memories; some deal with more recent history, and with the feeling of losing a loved one when they’re not really gone. I’ve never felt this way in my personal life… but I’d swear I have when I hear Brooke tell this story. 

The strongest songs open and close the set. “Are You Getting This Down” is phenomenal. Then, eight songs later, a trifecta of tear-wrenching, palpable bittersweet punches you in the heart three times in a row to close it out: "Time", "Mom’s Song", "Superhero". I defy non-sociopaths to take in a minimum of those four songs from this collection and not weep. You can't; it's just going to happen. So why glorify songs that remind us of pain? Because you can't experience this kind of pain without having experienced an equal measure of love, and love like this is always worth celebrating.

10. Animals As Leaders - The Joy of Motion  
Mostly progressive metal, but with many extended fits that could be described as jazz-fusion-guitar-with-rock-drumming, this album reminds me how great each genre can be when nobodys singing. It also reminds me that the main differences between prog-metal and fusion are whether the tonality of the song is major or minor, and whether the switch on the guitarist’s distortion pedal is off or on. On this record, that point is articulated clearly on “Para Mexer”, which, aside from the drums, appears to be performed entirely on nylon string guitars, though it is obviously a heavy metal opus. Though I gravitate more towards the band’s recent forays into fusion and groove (“Physical Education” is my JAM, and “Another Year” is my “runner-up to my JAM"), this record has done wonders for keeping my rekindled appreciation for heavy music alive and well.

HONORABLE MENTION:  Weird Al Yankovic - “Mandatory Fun"
The master of parody back at the top of his game. Give it up for the best return-to-form of the year. I still can’t listen to “Foil”, “Word Crimes”, or “Handy” (the latter two being far better than the originals) without a big old el-oh-el.

-How quickly the U2 record wore off on me. When I first listened, I was quite taken by it; I really remember that being true. But I’ve been duped before. Listening over time, these songs lost their novelty so quickly… Everything that sounded alluring about them at first just came across as trite.  I don’t know what happened, but I CANNOT remember why I thought this was so good at first. Worrisome… both for myself, and for U2.

-Kimbra. After her fantastic debut, I was sure I would love anything she ever did. After this year’s release, I wonder if it was really her I was swooning over… or if it was her producers (perhaps François Tétaz or Mark Landon). I’ll certainly give her another shot, but “The Golden Echo" was overreaching, disjointed, and had the unfortunate tendency to only offer hooks if it could slather them in pandering cliche. (Notable exception: “Love In High Places” — if only the whole record had taken this direction… Damn damn damn.)

Megan Slankard — January 6 - check out “Bones Live Forever”
Punch Brothers -- January 27 - check out “Julep” and “I Blew It Off" (w/ Jay Bellerose on drums!)
...and if that video for “The Eye” is any indicator of the whole record, the new Brandi Carlile (March 3) is going to slay.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


“Hi. I live in Rochester, New York, and I’m really interested in taking bass lessons with you!”

“Great! I teach out of the Rochester Contemporary School of Music. Lessons there are $46 an hour, and right now I have an opening at 4:30 on Tuesdays. Does that work?”

“Can... I take a half hour instead?”

“No; I only offer one hour time slots.”

“Oh. I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of commitment.”

“If it’s the money, some of my students who are on a tight budget just take two lessons per month.”

“Oh — no, the money’s not the issue. It’s just that... I don’t know about taking a lesson for a whole hour. That seems like a lot.”

(pause) “Do you like any shows on television?”


“TV shows. Do you like them?”

“Sure…  why?”

“How long are the shows you like?”

“I… guess they’re an hour, more or less…”

“Okay. Do you watch them every week?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Do you keep forgetting what happened the previous week?”

“Ah, not really; and they usually put a recap of the last episode before the new one starts, so…”

“So no problem. How many shows do you watch each week?”

“I guess…   three?”

“Three shows. Each one is an hour long commitment each week, and you follow them simultaneously with no confusion?”

“uh… sure.”

“If you can handle staring at a television screen for three hours a week, you’re more than ready to actively engage in music-making for just one hour a week.”


“If you took a half-hour lesson, you’d still be spending more time watching commercials each week than learning the instrument you claim to be avidly interested in.”


“So. Four-thirty on Tuesdays?"


Seriously. I deal with stuff like this ALL THE TIME. There is some irrational craziness leading people to believe that they should spend as little time as they can get away with doing something that they enjoy. 

The idea of the half-hour lesson does have some legitimacy; it comes from the teaching of children. Between the short attention spans and the lack of fine motor skills, thirty minutes is actually plenty of time for learning…

….FOR A SIX YEAR OLD.  But assuming the child enjoys playing and sticks with the instrument, there’s no reason not to start extending the lessons as early as eight or nine.

Somehow, “thirty minutes” got stuck in people’s minds as the standard. I’ve had two students who, when registering, commented that they found it unusual that I “only teach double slots”.

Here’s the secret: an hour long lesson isn’t a “double slot”. I will explain:

At any lesson, regardless of length, the first five minutes involve “the change-over” from one student to the next. One student is ready to leave, and departs. The other comes in, takes off a jacket, puts the notebook on the music stand, takes the instrument out of its case and straps it on, gets out a tuner and tunes it up, gets a cable and plugs it into the amplifier. These small actions add up and take a bit of time. Also, this time is conversational between teacher and student; we reconnect, and the student can bring up anything that’s happened since the last lesson.

The lesson itself begins with a review of the previous week’s assignment. The teacher listens to the student play to verify that the concepts introduced at the last lesson are now usable by the student. If the student has practiced and passes this section with flying colors, it can take as little as five to seven minutes.  If not, it can take much longer to re-tread the material, clear up any confusion, and set up a new assignment for further review.

Let’s assume the student did great, and that we’re only twelve minutes in to the allotted time. Now it’s time to further the student’s education and introduce a new concept. This involves explanation, demonstration, and maybe some listening to provide context. Of course, the student also has to try the concept out themselves and prove they have the basics of it. Then the teacher can give the student an assignment for the following week.  This all takes a solid fifteen minutes for one concept, and that’s if the student grasps concepts quickly.

Only… if this is a half hour lesson, that’s IT. Even after moving at the most optimal pace, this student received a whopping fifteen minutes of quality time. There are only three minutes left; time to pack up and leave so the next student can come in.

BUT - if the lesson lasts an hour, there’s enough time for an extra TWO fifteen-minute concepts. Or perhaps the student needs reinforcement in a particular area? With an hour lesson, that student can get what they need and still have time to move forward and develop multiple aspects simultaneously.

So for twice the price of a half-hour lesson, you get at least 3x the learning and reinforcement.  It is superior to a half-hour time slot in every way.

Given all this information, it’s my opinion that anyone interested in learning would jump at the chance to take hour lessons. If I explain this and one is still “uncertain”, it’s because they’re not coming to me for the right reasons to begin with. It’s just as well that they don’t follow-through…

…if they did, I might force them to learn something.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Häagen-Dazs IS better than Edy’s, but that's not my point.

It was just announced that the “Beats” headphone company has been acquired by Apple for an obscene amount of money. Critics of the deal have called out the sound quality offered by these headphones as unworthy of the attention or the money, saying they’re all hype and that they don’t follow through on the promise of enhanced sonic definition. Indeed, the professional consensus seems to be that Beats Headphones look great and sound like mud

Well-founded though the criticism may be, consider me optimistic. If Apple starts offering these headphones as an alternative to their built-in laptop speakers or their infamous ear-buds, younger generations may start to experience what music sounds like when frequencies below 400 Hz are audible without distortion (though to be fair, you seem to be able to hear down to just above 300 Hz on laptop speakers... if you're in an otherwise silent environment).

As a bassist frustrated by a world of people who don't know how to hear bass, I'm a fan of this notion.

Here is a graphic representation of Beats headphones vs Apple earbuds. 

While the earbuds tank off  below 400 Hz, the Beats ramp it up in this same region. 

Is it high fidelity? NO. 

But will it allow you to hear the actual notes produced by a bass even if you are in a moving vehicle?

By gum, yes it will. 

My thinking here is that though Beats headphones do not sound great, they still offer more bass response than anything the general public is listening through. So now is not the time to argue that Häagen-Dazs is better than Edy’s, because we’re dealing with people who have NEVER TASTED ICE CREAM BEFORE. Let them enjoy the experience for awhile before we start teaching them to refine that experience. It’s simply more important that people start getting used to hearing the bass again when they listen to music. Once everyone gets familiar with the full sonic spectrum, THEN they will start to understand what quality hi-fi is.

Back in 2008 I was emailing song demos to my producer-fans, and I noticed that a disproportionate number of them were giving feedback that didn’t make sense. Their comments seemed to indicate that they couldn’t hear my bass parts - some people were even asking me why I wasn’t using the bass the way I used to. I sent out a message to all the listeners reminding them that to hear bass frequencies, they’d have to listen to the music through something other than their computer speakers. 

The response was a mass of immediate replies: “OH! NOW I hear it! Wow; sounds totally different! I had no idea!”

I knew then that we had a problem. In the years since, I’ve had student after student who needs to be taught from scratch what the bass does in music. These are reasonable, intelligent people who have come by the instrument because it has four strings instead of six and “seems easy”, or because it “looks cool”, or because “my friends’ band needed a bass player, and I like music, so…”

…but not because they love what it sounds like.  Because they’ve never really heard what it sounds like.

Bass, before its role as a THING, is a SOUND. You have to be able to hear a sound before you can actively listen to it.

Crappy, tiny-ass speakers will never reproduce that sound such that it will register in your brain so that you can comprehend what you’re experiencing.

Therefore you will never assimilate it, and therefore you will never be able to duplicate it.

Bassists, I say we embrace this development; that we tolerate Jimmy Iovine’s insufferable banality for awhile. And then, once the unwashed masses are all wearing headphones by Beats… that's when we let them try out our Sennheisers, our Grados, our Sonys, our Audio-Technicas... 

...and soon the world will become a better place for bass.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Having The Fun.

Whenever I start working with a new student, I interview them the first time we meet. There’s a little leeway here; not every student gets the exact same line of questioning, but there is one query I pose to everyone:

“Why are you here?”

Some students like to answer that question with:

“I want to have fun.”

And I cringe, knowing that the odds are that this student will be gone in a month or less.  I admit, I am much more rigid and less forgiving with students who hit me with the “fun” answer. It tends to get rid of them faster, and if they're gonna go, that is a process I would just as soon speed up.

That's right; I just admitted that I try to push certain students towards quitting lessons if their motivation for showing up is “to have fun”. 

How can this be? Am I a sadist? Am I a terrible teacher? Don’t I want my students to enjoy themselves in their musical pursuits?

Rest easy. I am not, in fact, a sadist. I am, actually, a darn fine teacher. And I am giddy with excitement every time one of my students expresses joy through the music they play, which is happening with alarmingly increasing frequency.

But not one of those students has fun playing music by attempting to “have fun”. They all have fun because they attempt to PLAY MUSIC. They end up playing it very well, and the feeling one gets when playing music very well is done little service by the word “fun”.  More apt terms would be “exhilarated”, or “ecstatic”, or “elevated”, or “euphoric”.

Students whose goals involve playing music take no issue with working at it, because they want to play well. When they’re having fun, it’s because they know they’re good, and ideally, so are the other musicians they’ve surrounded themselves with.

Students who claim to want “fun" have usually not considered that music is something one creates through skill, or that skills are acquired through learning. These students also tend to lack the ability to focus their attention, so many of them don’t realize that music is something you LISTEN to. 

I don't take students under the age of twelve. I think one's pre-teen years are for exploration. I am an enthusiast of imagination. But these aren't tiny children whose fantasies I'm dashing, here. These students tend to exhibit something I call “We’re here because YAAAAAAAAY!”-Syndrome, where showing up to a music lesson is like showing up to a pep rally and chanting about how much “spirit” they have… There’s no connection to the activity itself; only to a picture in the student’s mind that they have tied to their self-esteem because of a movie they saw or the good time they had playing the “Guitar Hero” video game.

Once it’s pointed out that music performance offers little in the way of instant gratification, these cheerleaders tend to disappear, off to find a path of less resistance.  Seriously: the act of just tuning the instrument is a barrier to entry for these folks the same way running for miles and doing a dozen sets of burpees under the eye of a loud coach keeps a certain type of person off of the football team.

So I’d encourage the same kind of process when thinking about applied music as one uses when thinking about athletics: It makes sense to most people that the way to achieve “wins” is through training. Whether you have “fun” playing or not, the hours of drilling and conditioning are necessary to play well, and “wanting to have fun” doesn’t get you on the team. When a coach gets the call from a parent who wants to know why their kid didn’t make the squad, they lay down the truth: Their job isn’t to cater to children’s feelings; it’s to instill discipline and show how practice and teamwork can achieve a goal, and that starts by declaring standards.

And yet a music teacher isn’t expected to have this same outlook. Apparently, learning about standards, practice, and achievement is only worth instilling in young people if it will also blow out their knees by the time they’re 30, so music teachers are expected to give gold stars to everyone who shows up, regardless of their attitude or aptitude.

Getting away from analogy and back to the real world: if you take music lessons, you are doing it so that eventually, you can stand in a room with other people who will listen while you’re playing… or at least so you can stand in front of a video camera and record a performance to upload to the internet. 

You could deny that; you could say, “That’s not true; it’s just so I can have fun”, but you’d be kidding yourself. 

Because if you don’t ever intend for another living soul to hear you perform, why do you need lessons at all? You’re driven to get instruction because you WANT TO KNOW HOW, and you want to know how so that you can BE HEARD. 

But nobody wants to listen to you if you suck, which means nobody wants to play along with you if you suck, which means that you won’t be performing for anyone for long if you suck, and if you do, you won’t be getting positive feedback. Nobody will even need to tell you you sucked; you’ll know from their involuntary reactions before they ever say a word.

And knowing that you sucked, regardless of how few people heard you?




Saturday, February 22, 2014

"I'll Just Start Singing."

It always intrigues me how most instrumentalists think so little of singing. That isn't to say they don't enjoy the sound of singing. It's to say that they think having facility on their chosen instruments somehow qualifies them to also showcase their amateur voices on gigs. To them, singing is an afterthought; a token activity to pile on top of their "real" work.

As someone who has spent a *lot* of time performing as both a bassist and a vocalist, I can confirm that both pursuits require practice, focus, attention, and passion. As someone who teaches instrumentalists, singers, and people who attempt to do both, I can confirm that a great many musicians try hard to ignore this fact.

Many express the idea that studying singing isn't as serious/noble/intense/difficult as playing an instrument because "everyone already has a voice". While it's true that people tend to have years of experience with their voices by the time they try to sing, it's like the idea that the presence of a piano in your childhood house will somehow make you a gifted pianist the day you finally decide to sit down and press a few keys. Some seem to believe that singing is something that "just happens", and are baffled when they can't duplicate a note by simply opening up and saying "ah".

For any point one could make about how singing is "easier" than playing an instrument because there are no external strings, keys, sticks, or valves to master, I could play for you a passage on the bass that I've reduced to mindless muscle memory. Vocalizing this same passage, however, would require cognitive thinking and intention. A common phenomenon is the player who thinks, "If I can play it, I can sing it". The opposite is true, and observing a student who refuses to accept this is… comedy.

The truth is that singing IS easy... for people who are already good listeners. A good listener can be told, "Listen to the sound of your own voice"... and will just do it. But many people get quite far in life before they ever need to confront what listening to something truly involves, and the idea of having to listen to a sound that is emanating from their own throats is a grand mystery; a paradox; a trick question; confusing; terrifying.

Once a person acknowledges the sounds they can create, it's time they take responsibility for those sounds. This moves us into 'Terror, Pt. 2', also known as, "I AM SO UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THE SOUND OF MY OWN VOICE". It's tough to devote attention to learning an instrument when you feel humiliation every time you make a sound, and this is a real problem for singers. If you're learning to play bass, and your tone sucks, you can place the blame on your inexperienced hands and make the excuse that you're new and need time to practice. Failing that, you can go out and buy a different bass. Too many people think they are 'stuck' with the voice that comes out of their faces the first time they try to sing a note. They can't go buy a new voice, and they feel so self-conscious about the one they've got that they start developing neuroses. This is usually the point some hapless young dude has gotten himself to by the time he asks for my help.

If you want to sing, you have to acknowledge that your voice is the sound of an instrument, and that instrument is your body. Most of the moving parts are inside, so you have to learn to play an instrument that you can't see. It's going to make you a better musician all around, but it won't be a quick process if your attitude is that you'll "just start singing".

A better beginning is to just start LISTENING. If you do, the rest is much easier.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sound of Wood... and Metal, and Plastic, and Fiberglass.

Every year at this time, it gets a little quieter in 99% of America. 

There's a bit less noise polluting the atmosphere over the vast majority of the landscape for about four days during the middle of January. No; it's nothing to do with bus drivers going on strike or it being too cold for construction crews to work. It's because this is the time during which an astounding number of musicians with advanced technical facility all descend at once on Anaheim, California for the annual NAMM Convention. The purpose of NAMM is to assemble all the companies who manufacture and sell instruments, amplifiers, accessories, and any other music-related product, so they can unveil their new releases to everyone else in the industry.

NAMM is a good thing, because it stimulates the economy of the music business in one of the only sectors left that still actually MAKES money; the instruments and gear sector. As all the intangible aspects of the field have their value slowly decimated (recorded music, live performance, education, etc), this area has been keeping pace with modern technology and thriving. After all, most of the things sold in this sphere are… THINGS; tangible, physical objects -- and we as a society still perceive those as having value. 

The joke is on us; you can't put a price on real musical knowledge and ability, and we're so ignorant of that, and yet it costs almost nothing to make most of the cheap assembly-line instruments and the metal and plastic boxes with circuit boards we gladly pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for.

The musician's "urge to have STUFF" is even more pervasive because of the internet. Now when people buy stuff, they can post pictures of it on forums and brag… about how they now OWN STUFF. This tends to incite envy in others of a similar temperament, who promptly seek out more gear themselves. Bass players in particular seem to love this to the point of neurosis, and it is maddening, because so few people who fit the gear-hoarding personality type can actually PLAY worth a damn. 

(all pics from actual forums - I have no idea if the respective owners are capable players; I only know that this sort of thing encourages others to do the same, which leads to widespread cases of bass owners who can't play)

I am not making this up; I have traveled around the world, speaking and performing at events centered around the selling of music products, and everywhere I have gone, I've met so many people who spend so much money on accumulating basses, amplifiers, processors, pedals, and gear….  and any of them would set themselves on fire before they would ever pay for a single lesson to learn how to actually make any of it *sound good*.

Here's the thing: changing the SOUND you play with does not change your inherent understanding of music. Stepping on an envelope filter pedal may suddenly give you the attack you're looking for to make the syncopated line you're playing really sit where you want it to in a mix…  but buying that pedal will not teach you to syncopate. There are legions of bitter would-be-funkateers who thought that dropping a few hundred bucks on a slew of stomp boxes would turn them into Bootsy Collins… but whose eyes gloss over at the idea of being asked to COUNT in time with a song. 

This is a tough situation for everyone, because most of the people I'm describing are aware of, and on some level are embarrassed about, their disproportionate gear-to-ability ratio. Embarrassing them publicly isn't the answer; it only makes them defensive and more stand-offish about taking steps towards learning.

So think about it, gear-hounds: make 2014 the year you DON'T spend hundreds of dollars on a new instrument for your temperature-and-humidity-controlled collection room. Consider spending that money instead on some personal music instruction. With services like Lessons via Skype (through YOURS TRULY, among others), you never have to leave your house, and nobody needs to know you're taking lessons. Justify owning all that stuff by backing it up with some real ability. You'll feel amazing when you create quality music, and you'll appreciate your gear more when you know you can use it as it was intended.

Food for thought. :]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Seth's Top Picks of 2013

Happy New Year!

Although I started this blog as an outlet for my observations on music education, it has become the primary outlet for my opinions, so I figured I'd post my annual Top Picks list here. 

The annual disclaimer: I am passionate about music, and I respond to music that sounds passionate. That excludes a lot of the over compressed mainstream crap from the modern radio airwaves. If thats what you enjoy, you may not recognize much here.... but you will probably like something listed here much more than the crap on said airwaves. 

It's really getting bad, radio is.  Unless you live in a market with one or more large university radio stations, it's very difficult to hear anything modern of quality. In most cases, you can hear the "hits of the 80's, 90's, and today", or you can hear the mainstream pop crap, the mainstream rock crap, or the mainstream country crap. Maybe some NPR if you're lucky. It is a ROUGH time for modern music, and the Grammy awards, after showing such promise last year, have really gone to the dark side with their most recent nominations. Word of mouth is what will keep good music growing, so I propose we all make a resolution to start talking about it when we hear it at every opportunity.

I am sure some of my annual readers will find some surprises here, and that's a good thing. Contrary to what many must think by now, I really do listen to more than folk, pop, and rock… and the current state of folk, pop, and rock is such that I found myself seeking asylum in other provinces with increasing frequency. 

So here's to listening outside our comfort zones, and to shunning most corporate radio!

(Oh, and to listen to a release, click on the picture or the title, and it'll take you to either iTunes or Bandcamp.)

1. Foy Vance - Joy Of Nothing         

It's a songwriter's burden to write something that captures the listener, and there are a few ways to do that. One way is to "turn a phrase", but in a world inhabited by more and more cliches as time goes on, that becomes harder and harder to do - to say something in a way that few, if any, have said it before. Another way is to simply let whatever sentiment that is fueling the lyric bleed through and drench every word, to the point where people who have no experience whatsoever with the meaning of the song are living vicariously through the singer, hanging on every syllable; rapt. The Greatest of The Great are those who have been able to do both of these things at the same time. Count Foy Vance among the Greatest of The Great.

It's also not enough to deliver a meaningful lyric; a songwriter also needs to do something that is increasingly glossed over these days: they must compose gripping MUSIC to accompany their words. All too often, otherwise powerful lyricists are just awful at this, and all too often, musicians capable enough to construct moving chord progressions are not the most eloquent with language. It's rare to find someone who understands both ends of the craft who can also actually HANDLE them. Again, Foy Vance is the goods.

I found out about Foy back in 2006. My friend Kent Miura (who had a hand in recording some songs on the "Happenstance" EP) had made me a mix CD of music he'd discovered. There was a song on that disc called "Indiscriminate Act of Kindness" that stunned me and brought me to my knees every time I listened to it… and still does to this day, actually. It was by this obscure artist from Northern Ireland with a voice that, when calm, was fragile and angelic like the best Irish tenors you've ever heard, but when he opened up and let it roar, was dramatically brassy and gritty… like equal parts young Van Morrison and young Mick Jagger …and Donny Hathaway.  This guy could make that voice go from one extreme to the other so suddenly that it would literally command your emotions. It's a voice like few others I've ever heard.

As fate would have it, not even a few weeks after discovering Vance's music, I was slated to play in Glasgow, Scotland, the same day he was playing at a pub down the street from my hotel. It was one of the most amazing and electrifying performances I have ever witnessed, and I spent a small fortune in roaming charges so that I could call Kent and hold the phone up for a couple tunes (this was before every phone on Earth took video).  Afterwards I feebly approached Mr. Vance, muttered some shell-shocked, incoherent attempt at a compliment, and bought a few copies of each of his EPs. I was actually fawning; a complete fanboy, but he was soft-spoken and gracious, and said he was hoping to come to the States some day soon.

In all that time, "Joy Of Nothing" is only the second full-length album Vance has released, though there have been a number of independent EPs and singles along the way. No matter - I'd wait as long as it took if every record sounded as fantastic as this one. It is a powerful experience; the diary of a broken man mending. 

The opening punch of "Closed Hand, Full Of Friends" is a heart-pounding vow to perservere in the face of adversity; it's followed by the title track, a gorgeous exploration of melancholy, and then by "At Least My Heart Was Open", the confessional in which Vance tells the story of his trouble. Once you're in this far, it's nearly impossible to stop listening. Song after song, the record reveals moment after golden moment. "It Was Good" contains a chorus that, every time I hear it, I get that feeling as though I'm at a crowded venue full of talking people, when suddenly, a voice silences everyone instantly. The deeper I get into the song, it keeps happening; first because of the melody he sings, then because of how he sings it in that vulnerable part of his voice that is so fragile, and then, because of what it means. By the chorus of "Regarding Your Lover", I am slack-jawed. It is humbling to hear a humble man come to terms with being done wrong this way. The album closes with "Guiding Light", a song equal parts anthem and hymn, bittersweet and hopeful, balanced and classic, and featuring young Ed Sheeran on guest vocals. In an album of beautiful moments, it's an exceptional closing moment. 

Foy embodies the passion of music making - like he's a bomb filled with the secrets of the universe, and whether he's only leaking his contents slowly, hinting at what he's capable of, or whether he's alight and seconds from exploding, the reaction is the same; you are frozen, gaping, awestruck and just letting it wash over you. 

2. Dawes - Stories Don't End         

I wrote this in my journal awhile back… I think I was sitting in a corporate coffeehouse, or someplace where I had been inundated with a mix of artists who all sounded exactly the same:

When people reference "The Laurel Canyon Sound", they usually intend it to be a compliment. At one time it probably meant "sounding lush and well-recorded, with respect for the power of the lead vocal and each instrument's range and place in the sonic spectrum".  What it has come to mean today, very unfortunately, is "aspiring to sound like a Jackson Browne record, only with an absence of any relevant lyrical content and performed at too slow a tempo to be engaging, with a heavy reliance on the four chord and the overuse of delay."

…so there you go; full disclosure: I generally haven't been a big fan of recent records with this kind of production. So what would it take to make a band that has embraced it land this high on my list?  I mean, I didn't lose a bet or anything. I dig this album intensely. It's excellent.

For starters, it would take their album sounding "Laurel Canyon-ish" according to the first definition from my journal entry, and "Stories…" absolutely does. While I get the sense that this is the sound of four guys playing together in a room, it sounds lush, vast; it breathes, and yet kicks you in the chest when it's supposed to. I suspect that this is courtesy of mega-producer Jacquire King, and if that's the case, he should have every California band lining up for him to work with from now on. When I complain (as I frequently do) about how so many records sound "over-compressed", I suppose I should counter my complaint with an ideal solution. This album sounds beautiful.

There is also plenty of tempo variation (even a healthy variety of grooves to enjoy), harmonic variation (clever and captivating songwriting, even), and as far as lyrical content goes… Wow. Taylor Goldsmith is the young writer to watch. The album title references stories, and they are here in abundance, perfectly written, and telling the tale of a bittersweet period of his life. Goldsmith may not even be pushing thirty yet, but he comes across as timeless. From the jaded deadpan delivery of "Just My Luck" to the resigned poetry of the title track, it's been awhile since I've heard anyone 'new' with writing chops this good.

He spends a fair amount of his time in the lower part of his range, an everyman sort of "I should really stop smoking"-tenor-on-its-way-to-baritone. He reminds me a bit of Aimee Mann with his phrasing and sense of melody (and that is wonderful to hear in a male singer). But this all belies the power he's capable of when he belts it out; you just have to wait for it. This is a record full of stories, and it's front-loaded with songs that benefit from this kind of delivery… but by the time we get to the middle, during an unguarded, soaring anthem called "Bear Witness", Goldsmith finally lets go, and it's majestic.

The band is serious; the sound is of players who've leveled up to the point where their throwaway jams sound better than the effort-laden opuses of those with lesser powers. Bands playing Americana-styled songwriter-rock do NOT have to sound loose, generic, uninspired, and boring-as-shit. This is proven here by the wickedly up-tempo "From A Window Seat", the playful quasi-country antics of "Someone Will", and the fantastic loping groove of "Most People". Equally captivating is the way they respect the space of mid-tempo songs and ballads like "Just My Luck" and "Something In Common" while still maintaining a groove. It's a large part of what sets Dawes apart from so many also-rans. 

This is the sort of album -- the quality of writing, production, and delivery -- that I miss and still want from an Elvis Costello, a Paul Simon, or a Paul McCartney. This is how a classic approach is supposed to come across in a modern context. Highly recommended.

So many groups that go "on hiatus" and reform years later sound too far removed from the sound that once defined them… too far to be embraced again by old fans, anyway. I'm torn when this happens - shouldn't great artists be allowed to grow when we're not looking?

…and yet, we've earned our disillusionment. So many acts seem to re-unite simply to cash in, and the material sounds trite, forced, like a half-ass collection of dusty B-sides from bygone days. It's got to be a tough task to make your mark as a band, split up, grow as individuals, and then come back together with any sort of commercial aim without feeling like you're faking it. 

And Toad really does sound genuine here, which I respect the hell out of. In their early 90's heyday, this band pulled the unprecedented for me -- they released not ONE "desert island" worthy album, but two in a row. They were so influential for so many musicians, with such a mature sound for that era, and not many people realized how young they were; when "Dulcinea" was ruling my universe at age 20, I had no idea that Glen Phillips was only 23. Thinking about that now is intimidating as hell. Had I known, I might have hung it up.

So it's nearly TWENTY YEARS later. How can these guys win in this situation? How can they satisfy their nostalgia-yearning fanbase if they don't rehash their history, and how can they satisfy themselves if they do? Phillips has released a few strong solo albums in the interim (2005's "Winter Pays For Summer" is beyond excellent); but he is NOT the same writer he was two decades ago. His music commands a different kind of attention now. So will playing with his old band make him suddenly "sound more familiar"?

No, because Todd, Randy, and Dean have all grown and become more sophisticated as well.  Everyone's style is still there in essence, but the only element on "New Constellation" that truly smacks of "Old Toad"…

…is the actual smacking of drums provided by Randy Guss. So many drummers would overplay these songs, but that was never his hallmark; the thing that strikes me about him is that he always seems to play as if he's actually listening to the words. That may seem like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but anyone who's ever played in a band will understand how rare it is for a drummer. He has continually amazed me since the beginning with his restraint and taste, and it's beautiful to hear him again on these recordings. Todd Nichols is a hundred times the guitarist he once was, playing with a palette of tones and textures he never touched in the 90's, and his voice has a strength now that was missing in his younger days (his lead vocal on "Life Is Beautiful" is excellent). Dean Dinning's bass fills up an entirely different part of the spectrum in these new mixes, and while he's still stamping each song with his penchant for clever voice-leading, he's developed a healthy respect for laying it down more solidly than before. The band as a whole is as epic as ever, but the sound is thicker; Toad 2.0 has more "oomph". Phillips on his own leans a bit towards melancholy twang, and Toad is like a dopamine injection to counteract that.  

There are a few songs that give me the feeling that they're intended to be plastic-sounding "LA" glossy schlock rock, but these guys can't ever seem to commit to anything that milquetoast. Good for them. Besides, there's more than enough honesty in the collection as a whole to compensate for any small bit of smarm. Their vocal harmonies - whether in soaring call-and-response as on "I'll Bet On You" or in dramatic, dense stacks as on "The Moment" and "Is There Anyone Out There" - are reminders that as much as it was tried; as easy as it seemed to duplicate… NOBODY ELSE EVER SOUNDED LIKE THIS. Everyone who tried either sounded too country, too folky, or too praise-and-worship-y. It's just not doable except with this weird combination of fortunate dudes.

Toad's strategy was always that Glen tricked you into listening to heart-stopping stories while the band drove up the intensity until you cried. I won't give away where it happens, but with this they got me at least half a dozen times. Twenty years later, this band is every bit as poignant. Damn. No easy feat at all.

As much as I favor the "heavy listen" when judging a record, there is absolute merit in creating something great that isn't an emotionally draining experience. The idea that I'd want to listen to a record again as soon as it's over is a wondrous and rare thing, and it's right here.

Trapper seems like one of those Elton John-style pop geniuses who comes up with a hook every morning at breakfast; he makes it sound so effortless. His ability to connect familiar bits of classic pop in new ways is beyond refreshing. It's really wonderful to hear someone who loves this music actually exploring the form, doing it well, and not coming off as overly indulgent. There is only one song on the entire 17-track album that's longer than four minutes, and in most cases, this helps achieve the eternal goal of making you want to listen again. 

Trapper has a deceptively great voice. He has a rich baritone, and his hallmark is his conversational delivery, and that's the trick: his melodies hit you with no pretense, nearly hiding just how much skill he has as a singer until he ramps it up and fires the big guns. The record's numerous anthems ("Northwest Sun", "All Of This And Everything", "Top Of The Sky")  find him at his peak, soaring, riffing, and harmonizing like a madman.

"Werewolf In Times Square" and "For The Wondering" are Trapper at his utmost, epitomizing the syncopated, witty and wry jangly-folk-pop-with-a-funky-backbeat that Trapper has made his calling card for well over a decade, and I can't figure out why he buried these gems towards the end of such a lengthy album; their placement far exceeds the attention span of at least half the listening public, and though they immediately come to my mind when I think of this record, I doubt they even appear on the radar of most casual listeners.

Trapper also includes a few songs that take their cue from the pop music of close to a century ago… though each is stamped with a modern context leaving no room for doubt as to who, or what era they belong to. The album's title track is an easy-going homage to classic hawaiian slack-key guitar, while the banjo and pedal steel-driven "Bye Bye Beautiful" is a perfectly understated piece of tongue-in-cheek snark.

As mentioned previously, the collection contains 17 tracks, and short though the songs may be, that's… well, it's a bit long. I sort of understand why Trapper did this. CDs are rapidly approaching extinction; there's no telling what the landscape will be like by the time he has another batch of songs ready to release…. so why not just pack the thing full, "in case this is it", right? It doesn't impact the price of the album, but for what it's worth, I find myself skipping over "West Side", "Sober For A Living", "Waving As I Go", and "From The Ashes" on my many, many listens, which leaves me with a 13-track pop gem worthy of anyone's Top Five.

Thirty-somethings are constantly releasing music that deals with their mid-life crises, and most of them are very concerned with presenting the impression that despite the constant feeling of loss and impending mortality… they GOT this. With a wink and a nudge, they tell us, "this would bother a less clever person than me".  That will never work again, now that David Peters has pulled back the curtain on what that period really feels like, pulling no punches, waxing only slightly poetic; instead opting to bluntly spell out what's up: he's getting older; he's reminiscing about the youth that only recently seemed like it was still happening; he's wondering if he'll be alone for long; he's missing people in his life who already seemed to have moved on; he's wondering what happens now that everything he predicted has turned out differently…

…and in my life, I've never met anyone who, speaking honestly, doesn't identify with ALL of this.

The soundscapes are as majestic as anything Peters has ever offered (and for those who don't know, that is *quite* majestic) -- lush strings, brass choirs, bells, and organs complement Peters' layers of smooth, breathy vocals, underpinned by rattling snare ostinatos and his ever-present, hypnotic, glassy acoustic guitar strumming. It's a sound one can lose oneself in without trying.

"The Brightest Parade On Earth" is my Song of the Year. It deserves its own slot on this list, and the fact that it is couched in an album filled with similarly strong material makes it a must for your listening consideration. It's the best song ever written about Los Angeles… but it's more than that. Peters has found a way to encapsulate what it feels like to live there and PUT it into this song. I remember the year of my life I spent absorbing LA in a wild fast-forward montage every time this song's four minutes-and-ten-seconds wash over me. I'm not the only one this happens to. It's official - Peters has tapped into something universal here.

I've said many times that certain albums would have been better if they were shorter; that the artist should have had the vision to unclutter their offering, and in doing so, make that offering stronger. This is an example of why that works. "The Drug Of Dreams", while clocking in at just over a half-hour, consists of only seven songs; seven perfectly framed sonic paintings entirely worthy of your time and attention.

Do not adjust your screen. I am indeed Seth Horan, and I am indeed endorsing an album of heavy progressive music as one of the best of the year. This is not a prank; not a hoax; not an experiment of any kind. I just think this album is fantastic.  For those squinting and/or scratching their heads, I submit the following:

-Most modern progressive/heavy acts are big on the math of musicianship without paying attention to the emotional element. By that I mean that most sound like they take far more pride in being perfectly in time with a metronome rather than producing a sound that would make a listener FEEL anything. Even the bands trying to be "angry" screw this up. TesseracT's album stunned me from the first note, and held me through my entire first listen. Sure; by their very nature, a progressive rock band is going to play in some uncommon time signatures, but as proven here, that does not have to be jittery and annoying as hell. It can be captivating and relevant to the feeling being conveyed by the piece. Furthermore, drummer Jay Postones is great about providing a recognizable pulse no matter what meter he's pulverizing, which is often an adrenalin-charging, mind-melting experience.

-Many modern progressive/heavy acts feel the need to "be metal" …ALL the TIME. Snore. Dynamics are an essential part of a musical experience, and only doing one thing over and over again sucks just as much if you're Katy Perry as it does if you play rock with distorted guitars. Instead of making me feel like I'm being shelled by a thousand cannons for fifty minutes, TesseracT actually build tension throughout their songs… sometimes the drums wait a few MINUTES before they come in. The guitars aren't always ripping my face off - quite often they're swathed in layers of ethereal effects and synths.  It's wonderful and yes, occasionally weird and brutal. But it's a journey; NOT a volley of artillery.

-Most modern progressive/heavy acts have severe shortcomings in the vocal department. Not a lot of promising vocalists gravitate towards the genre because historically, there have not been many great songs to sing here.  The best vocalists offered to date are mostly metal-warrior-holdovers or nasally, auto-tune-dependant whiners... or screamers. Ack.  But Ashe O'Hara (this band's recently acquired singer) is so refreshing…  he's one of the most gifted vocalists I've ever heard gracing the microphone of a band this potentially aggressive. At times it's like hearing a gifted, silky R&B tenor cascading down a waterfall of evil riffing.  And it never sounds contrived or inappropriate. The guy is ridiculous - his resolutely "un"-metal timbre is the best thing to happen to metal in forever. By track six, "Eclipse", when he finally lets go with wailing high notes, it's the most pleasant kind of shock.

-They used a SAXOPHONE. Saxophone on a progressive metal album. Boom. You don't know until you've heard it.

Some may find it odd, but on more than one occasion I am reminded of Seal's first two albums, occasionally I hear King's X, occasionally I hear Porcupine Tree, occasionally I hear Imogen Heap, occasionally I hear Tool, occasionally I hear that album Buckethead did with Bootsy, occasionally I hear old-school Genesis, occasionally I hear stuff that sounds like it's from the Blue Man Group or Cirque du Soleil. Occasionally, I hear Enya.  Yes. Enya.  And then there's that saxophone I mentioned. Yes; it's metal, and yes; it's great music. The two were mutually exclusive for awhile… but no longer. Your curiosity is eating you alive, I can tell. Go ahead; iTunes sells the whole album for six bucks. Check this out. 

Moho is an instrumental trio, but the size of the sonic pie these three bake together seems much larger than the sum of the parts they're playing, which is a sure sign of an excellent ensemble. In general, a lot of vocal-less compositions miss the mark when it comes to balancing "engaging" and "palatable"; most either register as "too weird" or "background music"… but somehow Moho has struck a nerve with a large number of 'normal people', and are bringing a dynamic, rhythmic, ethnically flavored succotash of sounds to a wider audience. It's far more challenging than your average two-chord jam-fodder, yet never wanders off the reservation far enough to be labeled "jazz", and the group's enthusiasm for the music of other hemispheres constantly keeps things fresh.

I started hearing about MoHo almost immediately after relocating to Upstate NY back in 2011. They currently reign supreme on the jam band circuit here, and that's saying something; it's a strong circuit. Their self-titled 2011 release got to my ears in late December of that year; had I heard it sooner, it absolutely would've been on that year's list. I got to open for them last year in their home town of Rochester, and it was one of my favorite shows in recent memory; not just for me, but because I got to experience them live -- an experience that is, for lack of a better word, rad. 

Fair warning: "Annica" is a grower, not a show-er; this is music best assimilated during an active listening session, like an hour-long drive when you're alone in the car. Music made with vocals tends to eschew finesse of performance for the sake of supporting the lyrics… but when there are no lyrics, there's a whole world of nuances that all the instruments can explore. There's not a lot of instrumental, non-jazz music out there that I label as "excellent". If you're looking for more "instrumental excellent" in your life, Moho Collective is the place to start.

8. John Mayer - Paradise Valley          

Was anyone else as surprised by this album? After last year's "Born And Raised" was awkwardly/politely ignored, and after Mayer had to cancel that album's tour to finally heal his vocal chords, the last thing I expected was another record the very next year…

…which begs the question: is "Paradise Valley" a souped-up collection of leftovers, slapped together in the rush of career recovery?

Well… No.  Like I said: Surprising.

It's the mellowest thing Mayer has ever released, and coming on the heels of B&R, that's saying something. His last outing featured a heavy country influence, but this album features actual country SONGS… not country like you'd recognize from today's airwaves, though (I mean, listening to these songs won't make you feel stupid, which seems to be the defining feature of the genre nowadays). Some of these arrangements could have been at home backing up Hank Williams or George Jones in their prime, and in fact "Call Me The Breeze" is an old JJ Cale tune, and that definitely counts as 'quasi-country'. "You're No One Till Someone Lets You Down", "Give Me My Badge And Go", and "On The Way Home" are as authentic-country as it gets, with only Mayer's obvious yankee inflections to keep them on the pop side of the line. 

"Paper Doll" and "Who You Love" are really the only purely pop offerings here, and from what I can tell, these are the two songs that have been promoted. While these tunes are as good as anything else on the record, I sort of wish they'd acknowledge just how far outside "pop rock" Mayer is exploring. I really like this country-style on Mayer; it brings out honesty in his writing, and it brings his excellent guitar playing to the fore. He's always been an ace player, but kept most of it in check on his early releases to serve the songs. In this setting, the song is almost done a disservice if there's no guitar lead, so he can stretch out, and does so consistently and with grace and taste. Here's to two in a row from this guy, and to him keeping his voice this time.

9. The Winery Dogs               

WHOOO-HOOOOOOOO…..   super-rock supergroup alert. Billy Sheehan, Ritchie Kotzen, and Mike Portnoy all rocking at the same time. ROCK!  Rock rock rock. Dang.

Okay. So I gave up on "rock" awhile back, because "rock" music carries a stigma. When "rock" is a verb, I'm still very much a fan of it, but as a noun, it has come to mean "music which embraces bombast and cliche with no sense of irony" - and that goes for both the instrumental and lyrical components. A sub-genre of rock did develop that claims to address these issues for listeners like me. It's called "progressive", or "prog rock", and while prog does indeed embrace a wider dynamic range and tends more towards the esoteric than the common, it has its own problems -- it tends to become a vehicle for self-indulgence and virtuosity, and also tends to totally bypass anything that most people would enjoy actually LISTENING TO. When musicians who claim to "rock" start getting self-indulgent with the virtuosity, that is very often when I reach for the "off" button or head for the door, and when three of the most virtuosic musicians in the world get together to rock, there is potential for disaster.

That said: Somehow, these guys nailed it. No matter how you like your rock, there's something for you here. This is what a power-rock trio should sound like. As the opening track to this record first blasted out of my speakers, these were my thoughts as my mind was quickly mushified by the adrenaline and testosterone rushes that followed...

- That's Mike Portnoy on drums?  Holy crap - that does NOT sound like a carefully processed, over-compressed piece of plastic. And there is so much SPACE! He's actually playing parts that support other instruments, as opposed to it sounding like the band is there to accentuate his non-stop drum fills. I'm not used to Portnoy making great judgement calls like this.

- That's Ritchie Kotzen singing??  Holy crap - His upper register is like Chris Cornell's voice from twenty years ago... which is cool, because as I mentioned last year, Chris doesn't even have that anymore.  Did not see that coming.  Definitely intriguing enough to listen further.

- That is, of course, Billy Sheehan on bass; no question. Billy is unmistakable on pretty much every record he's ever played on, and his blues-rock-on-steroids writing style is instantly recognizable (he and Ty Tabor [of King's X fame] were the first dudes to let me know that minor 7 chords could be awesome outside of funk and jazz). Oh, and he's one of the first and biggest musical inspirations of my life.  So there's that.

Between the stupidly pedantic and overwrought cliches of most riff-rock and the shred-wank-arbitrary-time-signature-nightmare of so much soulless prog, there is actually a ton of unexplored territory, and I can only hope that a new generation of aspiring rock musicians gets a taste of what bands like this can do before they subscribe to the awful belief that there's a limit to how far one can take a song and still call it "blues-influenced", or that there's some kind of note-quota that needs to be fulfilled before one can think of a piece of music as "progressive". This, simply put, is how to rock.

10. Blue October - Sway              

Imagine a voice that embodies all the guttural beauty of Peter Gabriel and Bob Mould. Now imagine that voice on a guy at least twenty years younger; a bit more in touch with his sensitive side. Now put that guy in front of The Cure as they were in the early 90's, and imagine that they somehow got to listen to a bunch of Elbow records. Here's the important part: hire this group to provide the soundtrack to a bunch of 80's movies. You've got Blue October; the new generation's melancholy rock anthem saviors.

Justin Furstenfeld is most of the reason I dig this band. His voice is a constant point of angst-ridden tension. He's an amazing vocalist, and he just INHABITS these songs… which while formulaic, somehow capture me.  He's beyond melodramatic, but he gets away with it because he channels so much honesty. His range is fantastic, and when he pours it on, his impeccably voiced harmonies recall Guy Garvey. Then he layers his vocals in octaves and sounds like a chorus of Ozzy Osbournes....   and then he suddenly whispers to deliver a line... and you hear his voice; his raspy, wounded, normal voice. For all the power he can deliver, he can pull it all back and be totally vulnerable. 

These choruses are undeniable, these hooks are so solid, that I can easily forget that I'm listening to an over-compressed corporate modern-rock record. You've heard sentiments like those found in these songs before; they are definitely not without cliche, but when JF sings lines like, "Can you feel my heart beating underneath these stars? You're the angel that came and took these clouds away"… I believe him without question. No, seriously. I buy it; every word. Not many people can pull that off. He is a case study in how important the honesty of a singer's delivery is to a song. He could sing random definitions out of the dictionary and you'd be convinced his life was on the line -- that there wasn't a moment to spare, and that your attention was NEEDED. He's riveting, and he's got one of the most remarkable voices in modern pop music.

He's not the group's only asset, though. Matt Noveskey's bass playing on this collection is wicked. On every track, it's just perfect pop pocket. Ryan Delahoussaye's violin arrangements are also a key element of these huge, ethereal soundscapes that you can so easily fall into.  I'm pretty sure the drums are sequenced, but I'm not going to get uppity about it. This is great pop music.


Surprised by... 

Daft Punk - The most overhyped and overrated album in recent memory. On the one hand, a whole new generation will now have an appreciation for the iconic and superlatively funky guitar playing of Nile Rogers, who is without question the absolute superstar of this record.  On the other hand, everyone else may as well not have shown up…  including the guys in Daft Punk.

FEMALES  - As you may have noticed, there are no albums by women here this year. That's absurd. I am a through and through music lover, but I'm an idealist and an elitist, and I won't include a female artist here "just to keep things balanced". Every year I always latch on to at least a couple amazing collections by amazing women - an Ani, a Fiona, a Kimbra, a P!nk, a Butterfly… so what gives? I mean, from KT Tunstall to Paramore to Sara Bareilles to Janelle Monae to a dozen more… these albums were anticipated, absorbed, and appreciated… I just wasn't that moved. Come on, ladies - give me a reason to put ten female artists on this list a year from now.

Looking Forward To...

I heard that 2014 will see the release of a piano concerto by Ben Folds. Holy crap. Now THAT... that is exciting. :)