Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister album The Planetarium

I can’t quite figure out if I like the collaborative album that Sufjan, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister put out.  It wanders and soars and contains a few standout tracks, but in large it seems to be an exercise in musical exploration that doesn’t truly hold my attention.

A quick breakdown on the group.

Bryce Dessner is the lead guitarist for The National – and has collaborated with Sufjan before (Suf has done background vocals for The National and Dessner has done studio guitar work and compositions with Suf)

As near as I can suss out; essentially in 2011 a concert hall in the Netherlands commissioned Nico Muhly (composer) to write a piece about the Solar System.  He reached out to Sufjan and Dessner who helped assist with that composition which debuted in 2012 (Sufjan has also composed music for his own short film The BQE and Dessner writes/composes music for film frequently).

So this album is essentially an evolution of that group of buddies now writing pop/synth/folk together about the planets and associated mythologies.

And in true Beatles format – “And James McAlister is the drummer”

One thing is clear – It’s amazing to me that Sufjan Stevens can still sing so effortlessly. The new group album isn’t for everyone, but there are amazing moments throughout if you’re willing to give it a listen.  Here’s my favorite track (probably because it sounds the most like a natural Sufjan song).

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The Best Albums of 2012

This past year (well past by this point might I add) provided us with a slew of good to great music. There were new albums from Ben Gibbard, Muse, The Killers, and B.o.B. to name a few. They all made solid efforts in 2012, but they didn’t quite crack the top ten albums. Below is my list, long overdue.


01: Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal

From the opening of the first track you can almost sense that this is a special effort. There is a quiet intensity, a captivating beauty, that threads through every melody and harmony on this wonderful debut album from Iceland. By the time you get to the final track you’re only thought will be to press play again.

mp3 : Of Monsters and Men – Yellow Light


02: The Lumineers – The Lumineers

Another brilliant debut album on the list. Bursting with raw emotion and well written lyrical vignettes this album is filled with driving drumbeats and folk fueled romance. Although a few of their tracks are more aligned with radio friendly airtime it’s when they slow down that their true talent shines through.

mp3 : The Lumineers – Submarines


03: John Samson – Provincial

Many of the songs that appear on his debut solo effort closely mirror his top shelf work with The Weakerthans. While some reviewers this past year found this off-putting I find John Samson’s lyrical storytelling to be just as captivating with or without his regular band.

mp3 : John Samson – Heart of the Continent


04: Mumford and Sons – Babel

Not much needs to be written about this band or this album. They’ve grown up from an indie darling quartet to a full on success recognized the world over. This album is a worthy continuation of their career.

mp3 : Mumford and Sons – Where are You Now


05: Sufjan Stevens – Silver and Gold

I know; this is a Christmas album that’s actually a collection of five separate EP’s that were written over half a decade and they just happened to be released as a box set in 2012. I know all the reasons that this technically shouldn’t be on a list, but the entire collection is simply so good that it can’t be relegated to one month of listening every year. On top of that you can listen to each EP in chronological order and follow along with the evolution of his musical style.

mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Christmas in the Room


06: The Walkmen – Heaven

On this album The Walkmen continue their waffling between being effortlessly cool and trying really hard to channel Bob Dylan. The magic is when both of those efforts combine into a single glorious song. This is their best album since Bows + Arrows.

mp3 : The Walkmen – Line by Line


07: Beach House – Bloom

Although not quite as captivating as their previous effort (Teen Dream) their latest effort provides the same breathy vocals and building crescendos that have become their trademark.  This music would fit in almost any scenario.

mp3 : Beach House – Myth


08: Matt & Kim – Lightning

If you didn’t feel like dancing you will after a single listen to this album.  Or you might have a seizure.  It’s honestly a tossup.  Matt & Kim put out a solid album this time around and their one weakness (vocals on slower tracks) is kept to a minimum this time around.

mp3 : Matt & Kim – Now


09: fun. – Some Nights

It began for most people when their song We Are Young was featured prominently in a primetime commercial (possibly debuted during the Big Game?)  If you were daring enough to jump into the full album from that snippet you would find yourself treated to a modern day pop musical; complete with letters to moms, hanging out with friends, and pleas to find true love.

mp3 : fun. – All Alright


10: Jack White – Blunderbuss

I feel like I’m breaking an unwritten rule putting Jack’s first solo album this far down my list.  The problem is that for every brilliant track on the album, there is another track that reminds you how great Jack White is when he’s surrounded by other creative people.  This is a solid album, but it’s not his best effort.  I’ll go ahead and label it the Josh Ritter effect whereby an album starts off brilliantly and then veers into head scratching territory.

mp3 : Jack White – Freedom at 21

 

Sufjan Stevens – Silver and Gold – Gloria

Sufjan Stevens has quite simply done it again.  In 2007 he released a box set of Christmas (and winter, and seasonal, and etc.) songs that spanned multiple eras, references, and were all presented in the many various compositional styles preferred by Sufjan.  This time around he has dropped another 58 tracks filled with more of the same.  And more of the same is more of subtle genius we have come to expect from him.

The full box set is broken into five separate parts that collectively form Silver and Gold (bandcamp) (amazon) (itunes).  First on the list is the album Gloria which serves as a very effective jumping off point for those unfortunate few that are thus far uninitiated.  This first album has a healthy cross section of Sufjan Christmas.  There are original songs that would easily fit on his Michigan or Illinois albums interspersed with his take on classic tracks.  Below are my two favorite songs from the first album although I would encourage you all to listen to the entire album.

mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past
mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – The Midnight Clear

Other standout tracks on Gloria include the sprawling 7+ minute Baracola and Sufjan’s interpretation of Silent Night.  I’ll be back later this week with highlights from the remaining four albums in the box set.  For those of you in the USA have a great Thanksgiving week / weekend.  For those elsewhere, enjoy the music.

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Sufjan Stevens upcoming album Silver & Gold has a free single entitled Christmas Unicorn

Sufjan Stevens has a new Christmas/Holiday album coming out this November. It is called Silver & Gold and will have a total of fifty eight songs.  If you head over to his streaming page you can download the last track from the compilation for free in high quality digital format.  Appropriately it’s entitled Christmas Unicorn and it sprawls for a full 12+ minutes.  I would expect nothing less from Sufjan at this point.  Take a listen below and then head over to his page to preorder the digital version or the vinyl limited edition if you have money to spare.

mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn

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The Long Winters track The Commander Thinks Aloud

A few days ago I wrote a post about a track called Boeing 737 by The Low Anthem.  In the lyrics of that song The Low Anthem intertwines the tragedy of the World Trade Center terrorist attack with hanging out in a bar with Philippe Petit (the man who strung a high wire between the twin towers).  In that track there is a certain beauty found in what is ultimately a melancholy and utterly tragic experience.  It takes a unique talent to capture the bittersweet emotions of certain events and forge from that fire something beautiful and worthy.

The Low Anthem succeeded with their song Boeing 737.  Sufjan Stevens somehow paralleled his own short comings with those of John Wayne Gacy, Jr., in a heartbreaking song.  The Weakerthans have a brilliant song called Night Windows which details the loss of a friend to the war in Afghanistan.  And although this list could probably continue, I am often reminded of the following track by The Long Winters.

mp3 : The Long Winters – The Commander Thinks Aloud (Live in the WOXY Lounge)

In The Commander Thinks Aloud, John Roderick, lead singer of The Long Winters, tells the story of astronauts on their way home from a mission.  He details their euphoria, the return of gravity as they descend, and the amazing and breathtaking view they are afforded from their seats.  And yet, just as they begin to descend, as he sings the line “Can you feel it we’re almost home? / Yay! Yay!” it all starts to fall apart.  The song ends as the space shuttle Columbia begins to disintegrate and fall apart.  Yet from this great tragedy; not only for the astronauts we lost (and their loved ones), but for the entire space program as well, The Long Winters have found a beautiful way to tell their story and commemorate this event.

It’s tracks like this that keep me blogging.  Originally recorded for their 2005 EP Ulitmatum (amazon) (itunes), the original version of this song is filled with guitar distortion and feeback.  The version I have posted today was recorded live in the WOXY Lounge (which no longer exists as both WOXY and their website went out of business and were closed permanently in 2010) and I believe it is the definitive version of the song.  I am fortunate enough to have snagged this version a long time ago and I wanted to make sure it was passed around the internet a few more times.  Enjoy the music, no matter how tragic it can be.

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Wedding Music vol 08 : Reception

I have been married almost a full year now (almost) and yet I’m only half way through the reception portion of my wedding music.  In lieu of that, and an impending anniversary, I thought it would be best to dump a lot more on you in one batch instead of doling out four measly tracks at a time.

For those just joining these fair proceedings this is the list of songs that I played at my wedding.  If you’d like to see all the posts with all of the songs posted so far simply follow the link.  This continues the track list for songs played during cocktails and dinner.

mp3 : Jon McLaughlin – Indiana
mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL
mp3 : Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – Learning To Fly
mp3 : The Strokes – I’ll Try Anything Once (You Only Live Once Demo)
mp3 : Dooley Wilson/Warner Brothers Orchestra – It Had To Be You/Shine
mp3 : Josh Garrels – Going Home
mp3 : Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
mp3 : Josh Ritter – The Curse
mp3 : The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby

Enjoy the music.  I still can’t believe my wife let me have carte blanche when it came to the dinner portion of music.

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The Best Albums of 2010

The past year was filled with unforgettable music.  As I was poring over all of the great albums I began agonizing (often vocally to my wife) about how I was possibly going to choose which albums would make this list.  Throughout the past two months I’ve been listening to twenty albums on constant repeat and below I present to you the fruits of this labor.

01 : The National – High Violet (amazon) (itunes)

The National crafted an album in 2010 that surpassed all of the hype that has been surrounding them since they released their album Alligator in 2005.  Of all the great music in 2010 this album narrowly surpassed the rest of the pack in grabbing and holding my attention the most.

mp3 : The National – Sorrow
mp3 : The National – Conversation 16

02 : Cloud Cult – Light Chasers (amazon) (itunes)

There are five or six albums in this list that could have easily laid claim to the coveted number one position.  Light Chasers sits at number two on the list because every single song adds to the story arc and each track contributes something new, yet cohesive, to the experience.

mp3 : Cloud Cult – The Invocation (p.1) – You’ll Be Bright
mp3 : Cloud Cult – The Arrival – There’s So Much Energy In Us

03 : Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz (amazon) (itunes)

Many people didn’t know what to think of Sufjan’s return to music.  He eschewed his well known banjo and modern folk interpretations and instead produced a sprawling epic that combines intricate storytelling with even more intricate electronic compositions.  Truly a great album.

mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Now That I’m Older
mp3 : Sufjan Stevens – Vesuvius

04 : Jonsi – Go (amazon) (itunes)

Jonsi went solo this year from Sigur Ros and he came up with an album that sounds as great as his band, but it moves along with a joy and brevity that they don’t typically employ.

mp3 : Jonsi – Kolnidur

05 : Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (amazon) (itunes)

When you see Arcade Fire at fifth on this it’s easy to see just how hard it was to arrange the top ten.  The only problem I have with this album (which is the same as everyone else) is that it isn’t full of songs on the same level as Wake Up.  I know that isn’t fair, but it’s what we’re all waiting for.

mp3 : Arcade Fire – Rococo

06 : Vampire Weekend – Contra (amazon) (itunes)

In 2008 I was ready to write these Ivy League yuppie kids off as a typical flash in the pan.  On their sophomore album they’ve found a way to turn smug indie rock into something worth listening to over and over again.

mp3 : Vampire Weekend – Horchata

07 : Broadcast 2000 – Broadcast 2000 (amazon) (itunes)

The only reason this great album doesn’t move higher on the list is that many of the songs appeared two full years ago on their debut EP.

mp3 : Broadcast 2000 – Rouse Your Bones

08 : Freelance Whales – Weathervanes (amazon) (itunes)

Having been released back in early April it’s easy to see why many list makers completely forgot about this slice of well crafted folk pop.  The entire album is well crafted and infectious.

mp3 : Freelance Whales – Generator Second Floor

09 : Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (amazon) (itunes)

While I don’t agree with his lyrics, his message, his ego, or his personality I do agree with critics and listmakers across the globe that realize this album is worth looking past Ye’s flaws.

mp3 : Kanye West – Lost In The World (feat. Bon Iver)

10 : Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History (amazon) (itunes)

Each year I seem to find one amazing pop album that I can listen to again and again.  In 2009 it was Phoenix and in 2010 it was Two Door Cinema Club.

mp3 : Two Door Cinema Club – Eat That Up, It’s Good For You

Those are my top ten albums for 20010.  If you’d like to see my previous lists follow these links; 2009, 2008, 2007 (or click here to see all 4 years on one page).  I’m looking forward to 2011 in music as there will most likely be albums by Radiohead, Coldplay, Bon Iver, and The Strokes.  Enjoy the music.

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