Archive | January 2016

The 12 Year Old Genius (Recorded Live ) – Little Stevie Wonder, 1963

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I had my eyes open for this record for some time before picking it out of a bin at Georgetown Records in Seattle, while I was there for Beyonce and Jay Z’s 2014 On The Run tour.  Yeah, it was an unforgettable weekend.  Anyway, I was looking for this album because, although it’s not Stevie Wonder’s first recording, it was the one that gave start to his unending success.

At the time this was recorded in 1962, the 12 year old genius had been signed by Motown for over a year and had released two studio albums, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray.  Neither of these albums really took off, but this live album gives us a taste of both Stevie’s “jazz soul,” and his love and respect for “Uncle Ray”.  The energy of this live Chicago show exudes from the recording, making me feel like it’s my own memory of being there… if it weren’t for the knowledge the “little Stevie Wonder” went on to win 14 Grammy awards before I was even born (and then another 11 since 1982)!  A quick note from Berry Gordy on the record sleeve says that the title is not “given to Little Stevie Wonder by Motown… for publicity,” just in case you were wondering.  54 years later, and I highly doubt they’ve been accused of misusing the word genius.

Side One begins with the album’s biggest single, “Fingertips,” which gives the listener a pretty good example of Stevie’s charisma and charm, not to mention his proficiency on the bongos and the harmonica.  Also, just as a bit of trivia, that’s none other than Marvin Gaye playing drumsGayeDrums on this track.   And speaking of Gaye, that’s exactly who wrote the next song on this album, “Soul Bongo,” which continues to features Stevie on the bongos. Side A of The 12 Year Old Genius finishes with “La La La La La,” which pretty much sums up the lyrical content of the album so far.  On this song we get another dose of young Wonder’s stage presence as he teases the audience, from the drum set this time.  Even if this kid wasn’t blind, 12 years old, and about to grow up to be The Stevie Wonder, I would be impressed with the solid and fun first half of an album.

I’ll admit that sometimes this is where I stop listening.  Not because Side B is bad at all, but Stevie turns his attention and energy to his vocals in order to give us a bit of a tribute to his mentor and idol, Ray Charles. SW&RC.jpeg The album begins with one of four songs that are all lyrically beyond his maturity and comprehension.  Two out of three songs that were made popular by Ray Charles were also written by him, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough different versions of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” even if it is weird hearing a boy sing about a lady bringing him coffee every morning.  Still, “Drown in My Own Tears,” is even more awkward.  There is a certain charm in a child singing about heartbreak, but I also find it a little creepy.  That being said, for a 12 year old, he can sing.

I mean, the kid sounds just like a young Stevie Wonder.

 

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4 – Foreigner, 1981

Considering that I call this blog “On Records,” I’ve decided to take that rather literally, and attempt to write about albums that I have in my own vinyl collection.  I will also use this as an opportunity/excuse to take ridiculous pictures of my bonding experience with their cardboard sleeves, like the one below.  Of course, in one short month we will take a break to participate in some very fun March Madness brackets, but in the meantime we can take a look at some records that I love, and some that I am a little embarrassed by.

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Foreigner’s appropriately titled fourth album is neither of these.  This album is one of a handful that I inherited from my brothers when they traded their vinyl for shiny, digitally formatted, compact discs.  So, because it is one of my first, it holds some nostalgic value for me, but not in the way that, say, MJ’s Thriller does.  4 is not a record I spin often, which made it perfect for this new project of listening through my collection in order of album title, regardless of artist or genre (which are the two ways I currently have my records organized).

I probably kept this album because I liked the two upbeat singles, “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent,” and with this listen they are still the two moments I was most excited for.  The album kicks off with Nightlife, and I begin to question whether I really want to spend so much time listening to all this White Dude Rock n’ Roll.  That is what this is, especially in 1981.  Album Oriented Rock is what the genre was (think Alternative of the 90’s, or Indie of the early 00’s), and until Michael Jackson collaborated with Eddie Van Halen for “Beat It,” radio stations wouldn’t play music made by any non-white musicians.  I know this isn’t Lou Gramm or Mick Jones’ fault, but generally Foreigner isn’t representative of my go-to music. That being said, the first side of the record has been really growing on me.  The tasteful use of synth from pre-solo-career Thomas Dolby highlights Foreigner’s catchy licks and riffs, and their well-used, emotionally manipulative chord progressions.  Plus, they had Mutt Lange producing, which is like 1981’s version of Max Martin – he knew exactly how to clean something up and make it sell like an Apple product.

Anyway, back to the beginning.  “Nightlife” is at least a good reminder of the era we’re in, and I don’t have to wait long for my favourite (that I share with most 80’s stadium crowds), “Juke Box Hero”.  This song is everything that was hopeful about 80’s rock and roll.  “Juke Box Hero” is the American Dream. jukeboxhero As the song builds in energy, rhythm, and volume, we hear of an everykid, inspired (by a show he can’t even get into!) to purchase a secondhand guitar, who grows up to be a self-taught and self-made rockstar, or “juke box hero.”  This is probably one of the most underrated rock anthems of the 80’s, or maybe ever.  What I wouldn’t give to go back and see them perform this in the early 80’s with the massive, inflatable wurlitzer that they would blow up at the end of every concert.

But as I said, the rest of this side is pretty solid as well.  “Break It Up”, although so dramatic, is exactly the kind of song I would love to lip sync to.  “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” is the big ballad of the album that in part sets the tone of the decade, giving permission to other AOR bands to get in touch with their sensitive, romantic sides.  “Luanne” is kind of a mix, and mostly I think it’s such an interesting choice to include here.  I mean, there are a lot of feminine names that have two syllables, and I don’t know that Luanne was ever that popular a name.  Who knows if this song would be more popular today if it was instead titled, “Ashley,” or “Colleen”?

 

jr walkerUnfortunately, the best thing about the second side/half of this album is the hit single, “Urgent”.  This song alone keeps me flipping the record over, if only because of Junior Walker’s guest appearance.  I tried so hard to find a performance of this song with Jr., but it seems that like the video below (around 2:38), they mostly had another guy sax-sync to Walker’s brilliant solo.

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I get rather bored with the two Jones’ penned, ego-centric songs, “I’m Gonna Win,” and trope-filled, “Woman in Black,” although the latter one has some great guitar riffs that remind me of Huey Lewis and the News.

The last two songs on the album return to the kind of pop I enjoy from Foreigner.  Both “Girl on the Moon,” and “Don’t Let Go,” are fun, and I nod my head to them, but I can’t say that either of them are going to be the reason I decide to give this album a listen.  I am not entirely sure whether this is the only Foreigner record I have, but I am quite certain that it’s the last one chronologically that’s any good.  I would even venture to say that although some of their other albums have some more solid singles, 4 is arguably their best to listen to in album context.

15 Albums of 2015

So much for publishing this over the Christmas break, but for those who are still interested in some fantastic albums of 2015, I’m hoping to cash in on the phrase, “better late than never”.  As I mentioned on my list of 15 songs of 2015, this has been a particularly good year for new music.  Usually I’m able to fit just about every album that I have loved in a year into a list of 12-14, but this year 15 does not feel like enough.  No matter what I do, I will need to leave off an album that shaped my year in some way.  Sorry in advance if I miss your favourite album of the year in this list, but you can likely assume I agonized over including it.

(15)  All We Need – Raury

allweneedI love a whole lot about this debut from Raury, but maybe most of all I love the fusion of genres.  All We Need is part folk, part hip hop, and part poetry, and manages to never sound scattered.  If anything, I’d say it feels comfortable in its own skin.  Dare I call it hippy-hop?  No, I don’t think I will.  At times Raury does come across as a bit idealistic, but then I remind myself that this guy is 19 years old, and I relax into the music.  My highlights are the Big K.R.I.T. assisted “Forbidden Knowledge,” “Woodcrest Manor II,”  and “Mama”.

(14)  How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence and the Machine

HBHBHBI would still consider Ceremonials to be Florence and the Machine’s strongest album, but one thing I love about their 2015 release is their band consistency.  The group does what they do best – dark and broody verses matched with loud, belted, catchy hooks; a concept album that plays with related themes (this time often biblical heartache and marine imagery), yet doesn’t go overboard; and of course an ethereal quality somehow pulled off with huge volume and instrumentation.  Highlights include “What Kind of Man,” “Delilah,” and “St. Jude”.

(13)  Unbreakable – Janet Jackson

unbreakableWe’ve been waiting 8 long years for Unbreakable, and although it’s not my album of the year, it’s full of diverse R&B for any occasion.  My favourites are the opening three songs: “Unbreakable,” “BURNITUP!” and “Dammn Baby” back to back.  The album sales have been brilliantly packaged into bundles with merchandise or concert tickets, which I think we’ll end up seeing a lot more of in the future. I bought my copy of this album with a tour T-shirt.  But you can just buy it on iTunes, the old-fashioned way.  In case you missed it, here’s the video for the first single, “No Sl333p,” featuring J. Cole:

(12)  Every Open Eye – Chvrches

chvrches eoeYes, “Leave a Trace” is the big song of this album, but the entire thing manages to keep a high energy without tiring out or boring the listener.  I can’t decide if Lauren Mayberry’s voice has matured slightly, or if I’ve just gotten used to it, but I never listened to their first album, The Bones of What You Believe, nearly as much as I’ve played Every Open Eye.

(11)  Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

SIJS-2400I was skeptical of all the chatter around new Australian artist, Courtney Barnett, and her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.  Listening to a single on its own didn’t hook me, but when I finally decided to give the whole thing a spin I was pleasantly surprised.  Comparisons to Dylan’s lyrics have been ripe, but the first thing my wife and I noticed was how her voice sounds like Sheryl Crow.  Sometimes I think this album sounds like a lost record of 1996, but nobody in the 90s was writing music this good about things like buying organic vegetables or the price of housing.  Seriously, she can make a decent tune out of any random subject matter – she’s like the Sydney Bristow of blues-rock.

(10)  Vieux Loop – The Acorn

vieux loupFive years since their last album, and eight years since I became a fan, Ottawa’s The Acorn has released a short but sweet, folky album named after an old wolf.  Ever since hearing this among the Polaris Prize nominations list, it’s been a go-to record for chill activities like tea-drinking and writing.  Highlights include “Cumin,” and “Domination”.

(9)  Ratchet – Shamir

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Genderqueer 21 year-old Shamir from Las Vegas, Nevada is one of my favourite new artists in a long time.  Shamir makes fun, innovative music, making use of various sounds both electronic and acoustic, and performs it with a beautiful counter-tenor voice that reads neither as masculine or feminine, reminiscent of Prince or Annie Lennox.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to get to know Shamir’s quirky style through a music video.   Here’s “Call It Off”:

(8)  You Should Be Here – Kehlani

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I will never forget my first night in NYC this past October, getting ready to go out, and a friend putting this album on.  Until that moment, I thought that Kehlani had only released her EP, Cloud 19, so as soon as I recognized the voice I was excited to give this a closer listen.  Among so many up-and-coming R&B voices, this one is a little more uniquely hip-hop; smooth but with a distinct edge.  From the intro to the final track, this album feels cohesive and ready to play any time of day, as long as you’re okay with a parental advisory warning.

(7)  Epic – Kamasi Washington

KamasiEpic may be the most appropriately titled album of the year, with no less than 3 hours of heavily Coltrane-influenced saxophone.  Kamasi has been making a name for himself via collaborations with Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, but I doubt even he expected to his debut jazz LP to be as well-received as this has been.  With his 10-piece band, this sounds reminiscent of post-bop jazz, while also forging a new kind of fusion that just might provide a way forward for jazz saxophone.  If you feel overwhelmed by a triple-disc record, give “Re-Run” or “Change the Guard” a try for a taste of Kamasi Washington.

(6)  Coming Home – Leon Bridges

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The comparisons to Sam Cooke have been most rich, and indeed this album sounds like a lost record of the 60’s, when gospel first became pop.  The production is soft, echoey and reminiscent of the golden Motown era, while 25-year-old Bridges’ voice is like salted caramel – smooth with a bit of crunch, and ever so delicious.  If I had to pick some favourite moments, they’d be on “Brown Skin Girl” and “River”.  But it’s best heard all together, and this is number one on my vinyl-to-purchase list.

(5)  Sound & Color – The Alabama Shakes

sound&colorFrom the first track on The Alabama Shakes’ second album, it’s clear that this is a departure from their debut, Boys and Girls.  Vibes open the album, introducing us to more diverse instrumentation and more softly subtle sound.  Brittany Howard also released some music with her punk band as Thunderbitch, and I can’t help but wonder if that outlet freed The Shakes up to explore some quieter dynamics here.  Brittany’s contagious energy as she sings simple and honest lyrics, combined with super catchy blues riffs, provides plenty of consistency for old and new fans alike to be all about Sound & Color.

(4)  Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment 

surfIt was an emotional rollercoaster when Surf was released for free on iTunes.  First, elation.  Second, disappointment when its availability was only on American iTunes.  Third, I went into problem solving mode, attempting to find someone who would buy it south of the border and dropbox it to me.  About a week later I finally found a downloadable copy here (and you should too), and proceeded to download and listen to these collaborative tracks on repeat for another week or two.  It’s not what I expected.  Chance the Rapper has continued to evolve and explore, bringing passion and humour to every conversation, and you can tell how much these musicians respect and enjoy one another.  If nothing else, give “Sunday Candy” and “Wanna Be Cool” a listen.

(3)  Ibeyi – Ibeyi

ibeyiIbeyi is the Yoruban word for “twins”, an appropriate band name for French-Cuban twin sisters, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz.  Soon after being mesmerized by the video for “River”, a friend sent me their interview with Shad on the Q.  I think I knew then that their album would be somewhere on this list.  This is proper folk music, made by people tied to land and language, culture and place.  It’s minimalist, relying on sparse rhythms and rich harmonies for a simultaneously haunting and comforting sound.

(2)  Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

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I am not a Sufjan purist.  What I mean by this is I have not been sitting around hoping he would return to the folky style of Illinoise or Michigan.  I loved Age of Adz, and am a firm believer in artists losing some fanbase in order to explore new soundscapes.  What impresses me about Carrie & Lowell is not the way it seems like a return, but the way Sufjan makes such a dive from his head to his heart.  We are so used to never speaking ill of the dead that when  Sufjan sings honestly about his mother and her imperfections, we know there is something especially vulnerable and beautiful and human going on.  This album feels nothing short of sacred, and requires energy to engage it properly.  But I promise it’s worth it.

(1)  To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

TPABblogIf you have had more than one conversation with me this year, you will likely not be surprised by my number one pick.  To Pimp A Butterfly was my most anticipated album in a very long time and it did not disappoint.  What can I even say in a paragraph? Kendrick Lamar wrestles through massive themes of race and celebrity, love and hate, family and success, while reuniting funk with rap to tell another beautifully crafted story woven together through a spoken-word poem.  If Good Kid M.A.D. City was a Compton album, TPAB is an American album, rising up and peeling back layers of systemic racism and oppression on grander and larger scales than ever before.  Yet the constant self-awareness and reflection never lets it be reduced simply to a protest album.  Plus, on top of being arguably the best rap lyricist right now, Kendrick uses his masterpiece to showcase other phenomenal musicians, whether legendary, like George Clinton, or fresh faces like Thundercat, Rapsody and Kamasi Washington (to name a few).  This is without hesitation my album of 2015, and is providing some serious competition with Beyoncé and Frank Ocean for my album of the decade so far.  And with that sweeping statement, let’s jam out to “King Kunta”, shall we?

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I feel like I ought to mention couple of hot contenders that at some point were on this list.  If you want even more suggestions, check out Miguel’s Wildheart, Jamie XX’s In Colour and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness.  If these albums were released nearly any other year, I’m quite sure they would have been included, but the fact they are not on my list  just goes to show what a strong year 2015 was.  And now for 2016 – peace!