The Best Albums of 2016

The music of 2016 was magnetic, with a few upstarts making thrilling first impressions and some of my favorite go-to artists tuning their sound to a new frequency. As a result, here are the best albums of the year (according to a recovering music addict):

Access the full playlist via AppleMusic by following this link 

10) From Indian Lakes – Everything Feels Better Now

from-indian-lakes-everything-feels-better-now– Standout tracks: Happy Machines, The Monster, Blank Tapes, Come Back

– What it sounds like: imagine being kidnapped, locked inside a dark room all winter long and given only a few provisions to stay occupied—a lonely copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers to read, albums from Air/Radiohead to listen to, and a metronome to keep track of time. Later that Spring, you (Joey Vanunucchi) are unleashed back into the wild and record a stunning, intricate indie rock album (singing and playing every note).

– Why I love it: take the technicality of Death Cab for Cutie’s rhythm section, add in wispy vocals, and factor in a whole lot of heart—one haunted by the past but optimistic about the future. Vanunucchi has given us an album to put on after the storm when the air is crisp and “everything feels better now.”

9) The Japanese House – Swim Against the Tide EP

the japanese house - swim against the tide.jpg– Standout tracks: Swim Against the Tide, Face Like Thunder

– What it sounds like: electropop lullabies teetering on the edge of clarity, but with a cough syrup induced cloud hovering above. You’ll hear subversive beats, melodic guitars, mesmerizing lead vocals, and ethereal harmonies that serve as another instrument (a page taken from the book of Imogen Heap).

– Why I love it: like the rest of The Japanese House releases, this 4 song EP begs to either run much longer or at the very least, be played on repeat. The percussion tugs at your feet asking them to tap along while Amber’s androgenized vocal tone swims through your ears. This is a quick record—ideal for lazy days, long days, and days longing for love.

8) Civil Twilight – Story of an Immigrant (Acoustic)

civil twilight - story of an immigrant acoustic.jpg– Standout tracks: Oh Daniel, River Child, All My Clothes, Let it Go

– What it sounds like: Story of an Immigrant (the non-acoustic version) was #4 on my list last year mostly because it was an album to “feel, not hear.” There’s even more emotion built into these stripped-down versions of those songs. Here we find a deconstructed recreation that’s naturally beautiful with simplified piano melodies and naked vocals.

– Why I love it: last year’s version made me feel alive. This year’s version is the soundtrack to being alive.

7) Kaytranada – 99.9%

kaytranada-99-9-percent

– Standout tracks: TRACK UNO, GOT IT GOOD, ONE TOO MANY, WEIGHT OFF

– What it sounds like: multiple genres weaved together by a common thread (confidence). Think 90’s hip-hop beats, spiked with electronica, snapping with modern bass lines, and thriving from the addition of remarkable guest vocals.

– Why I love it: this album has helped me to see how the simple act of listening to a song with a beautiful beat can completely change the trajectory of your mood. Kaytranada has perfected the mix of sensible musicality combined with dance floor ready hip-hop, accompanied by some seriously versatile vocalists. This record grooves better than any other album produced in 2016, or at least 99.9% of them.

6) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead-a-moon-shaped-pool

– Standout tracks: Burn the With, Daydreaming, Desert Island Disk, Identikit

– What it sounds like: It’s incredibly beautiful. It’s incredibly sad. It’s minimalistic. It’s Radiohead.

– Why I love it: when In Rainbows came out I couldn’t quite describe how it made me feel other than feeling transfixed in some sort of alt-rock/indie paradox. Now I’ve had years to figure out what that was—complete disorientated contentment. This record triggers similar responses. It’s claymation witch hunts, abandoned snow caves, and characters with glass eyes being viewed on a small black and white TV—all played at half speed with haunting background music. Discomfort turns into relief, sensibility is gone (but not forgotten), and now you’re destined to wander around lost until the album is over.

5) Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

jimmy-eat-world-integrity-blues– Standout tracks: It Matters, Pretty Girls, Through, Pol Roger

– What it sounds like: here’s the record Jimmy Eat World fans have been longing for since Futures. The production is impeccable and the performances are breathtaking.

– Why I love it: they’ve been important staples in my record collection since I started evolving beyond a 60s and mid-90s rock radioholic. These songs are ripe for late night drives where you just want to feel something, but instead end up feeling everything. This record has me unconsciously shouting Jim’s ardent phrases while unabashedly air-drumming (especially during the breakdown at the end of “Pass the Baby”). Jimmy Eat World mean a lot to a lot of people, and Integrity Blues are their Rushmore, Max.

4) Thrice – To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere

thrice-to-be-everywhere-is-to-be-nowhere– Standout tracks: Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, Wake Up, Black Honey

– What it sounds like: prime cannon, load with powder, aim to proper elevation, and be ready to ignite at the at the officer’s command—this is the return fire. Once you start listening, you’ll experience an explosion of political dissatisfaction, conceived by empathy and unmitigated awareness. Heavy guitars react to hammering percussion, which are bound by thundering bass and eventually pushed through the cannon with the aid of Dustin Kensrue’s guttural vocals.

– Why I love it: Thrice foretold November’s outcome eloquently and without restriction on this album. The band, unbound by major record label influence, are able to examine gun law, confront the definition of repeated insanity, and attempt to wake up a country asleep at the proverbial wheel. History says that political turmoil has the potential to spawn great protest music and here’s our first case study of this election.

3) Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are

nada-surf-you-know-who-you-are– Standout tracks: Cold to See Clear, Believe You’re Mine, Out of the Dark, Victory’s Yours

– What is sounds like: effortless indie rock that hits you right in the gut, right away. Nada Surf play music that sounds just as good being played on a hi-fi stereo at max volume or carefully whispered from a bar stool in an empty saloon.

– Why I love it: deliberate drumming leans into ringing guitars and melodic bass, all complimented by Matthew Caws’ airy and incomparable vocals. When listening to this album, I’m taken back to my kitchen table circa elementary school days, eating a bowl of my favorite cereal—reading the back of the box while waiting for the moment where the prize inside starts to surface for the taking. This is exactly how I want music to make me feel: first contemplative (tearing you down), then comforted (building you back up).

2) Bon Iver – 22, A Million

bon-iver-22-a-million– Standout tracks: 22 (OVER S∞∞N),715 – CRΣΣKS, 33 “GOD”

– What it sounds like: dismantled singer-songwriting with moments of desolate solitude followed by stages of iridescent faith. Mr. Vernon sounds like he’s tired of being locked away in his father’s hunting cabin (this is exactly what he did to record his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago) and instead, is now out for the hunt.

– Why I love it: on first listen, I experienced early-onset confusion, caused by the fragmented track names and audio that sounded like it had been recorded in a moving armored truck. Choruses were unrecognizable and I couldn’t tell where the songs were heading.

Then I discovered the decoder ring in “715 – CRΣΣKS”: an a cappella vocoder experiment turned into a master work. These songs are full of endless, impacted vocals surrounded with frustrated beats and splintered melodies, all fused together with hidden elements of “traditional” Bon Iver (see, now it all makes sense). The division between verse and chorus is still unclear at times but this also means that these songs don’t necessarily have a clear ending, and good things shouldn’t come to an end.

1) Paper Route – Real Emotion

paper-route-real-emotion– Standout tracks: Untitled, Real Emotion, Mona Lisa, Zhivago, Chariots

– What it sounds like: electronic-infused indie rock—equal parts soul, emotion, atmosphere, and shear energy. Once known as the band who recorded their first release in a bedroom, Paper Route are now three albums in and couldn’t be further away from sleep. Uptempo songs like “Chariots” are just waiting to make you move while “Untitled” and the other more anthemic tracks grab your attention and make you stay put.

– Why I love it: I’ve experienced records like this only a handful of times before—those that successfully blend multiple genres, tones, styles, and feelings. Real Emotion is concurrently complex and simple, pairing Nashville talent with a New York state of mind, while sounding both bombastic and barren.

The color blue comes up many times throughout this album. (Un)fortunately for Paper Route, blue is the farthest emotion you’ll feel by the end.

Honorable Mention:

Conor Oberst – Ruminations, Local Natives – Sunlit Youth, Phantogram – Three

About “The Best Albums of 2016” List:

The above list was developed to help readers find new music via the music service of their choice (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc.). I try to keep the commentary concise, only including the elements that I find most helpful when receiving a recommendation: brief list of my favorite songs, how each record compares to other artists/albums folks may know, and what’s unique (or what do I love) about these albums in particular. 

– Kenny Bringelson

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Brand New Feet

To Our Unborn Daughter,

Very soon, you’ll be exploring this world with brand new feet. One day you’ll stretch out your beautifully tiny toes, and reach them down onto a path that’s been paved by generations before you. Over the last few years, great people have worked together to soften the ground to ensure that any person can walk around freely, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they believe in. Because of this, we’ve been able to take big strides forward–in a world full of roads changed by understanding, repair and reformation. 

We hope that you’ll get to take your first steps on this same enlightened road, but you never know when this could change; either overnight, over 10 years, or over a lifetime. These paths might start to feel like they are shifting from under your feet, sending you back through the cracks and bumps of times we thought were behind us. The road may have toughened due to decisions beyond our control…but for that, we still must apologize to you. 

We are fundamentally reminded that there are dark roads of disagreement with endless twists and turns. Anger, grief and fear may haunt these passages. There may be men in monster suits hiding in the shadows with false claims to make these roads even greater than before. But be wary, they will challenge you beyond your wildest imagination, trying to shift your every step in their favor.

In spite of this, you will crawl, then walk, and eventually run through the darkness with endearment guiding your way. You’ll be timid and anxious at times, worried and afraid of this ever-changing path; but your mom and I will be right there beside you, gently lifting you up by your delicate hands if you should fall, and teaching you how to find your own steady grounding. Always remember, the roads don’t actually move before us, we are the ones that move along the roads. 

To get you through this journey with your brand new feet, we will pick out your first few pairs of shoes. But soon you’ll learn how to choose the right ‘Chucks’, ‘Toms’ or ‘Crocs’ to get you where you need to go. You will “loop, swoop and pull” yourself up, as you mend the ruptured concrete alongside future friends, schoolmates and colleagues. 

As your tiny feet grow, your mom and I will fight to take down any walls blocking your path, to give you the freedom to learn from any oversights of the past. 

We know that someday, you and your generation will have the strength to endure this battle, maybe even better than we ever could–to continue pushing forward with those steadfast, prevailing, and not so brand new feet. 

Love,

Dad (and Mom)

(Almost) End of the Year List – 2016

The following are my (as of today) favorite albums of the year. Each selection is ‘in the running’ for consideration into my “Best Albums of 2016” top 10 list (really, these are the records I need to listen to, over and over, until the end of the year so I can whittle down the list). Without further adieu, in no particular order:

  • Mystery Jets – Curve of the Earth
  • J Dilla – The Diary Instrumentals
  • The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  • Nada Surf – You Know Who you Are
  • From Indian Lakes – Everything Feels Better Now
  • The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
  • Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
  • Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
  • Paper Route – Real Emotion
  • Conor Oberst – Ruminations
  • Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
  • Your Boy Tony Braxton – Adult Contempt
  • Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth
  • Wilco – Schmilco
  • Civil Twilight – Story of an Immigrant (Acoustic)
  • Local Natives – Sunlit Youth
  • Sia – This is Acting
  • Thrice – To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere
  • Kings of Leon – WALLS
  • Band of Horses – Why Are You OK
  • Sarah Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways
  • Bon Iver – 22, A Million

These albums are still to come, highly-anticipated releases of 2016:

  • The Japanese House – Swim Against the Tide EP
  • Jim James – Eternally Even
  • Ryan Adams – (Untitled November Release)
  • Nada Surf – Peaceful Ghosts
Best Albums of 2015 by Kenny Bringelson

The Best Albums of 2015

To celebrate the year in music, I present a ranked list of my 10 favorite albums of 2015. The mission is to expose you, the reader, to new music in hopes that you’ll check out a song/album via the music service of your choice (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc.). I’ve highlighted the elements that I find most important when receiving a music recommendation: what are the best songs, what does it sound like and what do you love about it (or what makes it unique). Without further ado, here are the best albums of 2015 according to a dedicated music addict: 

10) José González – Vestiges and Claws

Jose Gonzalez Vestiges and Claws – Standout tracks: With the Ink of a Ghost, Stories We Build Stories We Tell, The Forest

– What it sounds like: it’s minimal, but like Nick Drake maturing and adapting tasteful pop sensibilities in order to reach more people with his music.

– Why I love it: I’ve wondered what a whisper would sound like amplified and turned all the way up. I’ve also wondered how much of an impact you could make with that magnified murmur. Those who exert ample energy into having their whispers heard must have something very important to say. José González makes me feel every emotion on this album while helping me realize that sometimes you can make the most noise by being the quietest.

9) Ryan Adams – Live at Carnegie Hall

Ryan Adams Live at Carnegie Hall – Standout tracks: Gimme Something Good, Am I Safe, Oh My Sweet Carolina

– What it sounds like: Ryan Adams alone with his guitar, performing two blocks south of Central Park — doing what he was born to do in a beautiful setting.

– Why I love it: on the surface it’s simply a live album, but deep-down way underneath it’s Adams coming alive. I took a trip up to the mountains, rented a cabin, drank mediocre whiskey and smoked mediocre cigars with this as my soundtrack — honest, stripped-down and contemplative versions of some of Ryan’s best tracks. This is the album you put on when you don’t know who your friends are anymore, don’t know where you’re going and don’t know what’s next. Are you safe? Ask Ryan – he’s guaranteed to give you an answer. I bet you’ll be alright.

8) Guster – Evermotion

Guster Evermotion
– Standout tracks:
Endlessly, Long Night, Gangway

– What it sounds like: Guster doing Guster all over again but with smoother melodies, driving rhythms and an appreciation of leaving more space/emptiness in the mix than ever before. 

– Why I love it: this is the album for long drives, late nights and people who stop to live life in the moment. Guster has this way of making me feel happy, no matter what life has thrown at me. I think it’s the beautiful songwriting and killer musicianship…but maybe it’s just the return of drummer Rosenworcel’s bongos.

7) Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Leon Bridges Coming Home – Standout tracks: River, Brown Skin Girl, Coming Home

– What it sounds like: a soul singer who was hitchhiking in 1958, got picked up by Marty McFly, flux capacitored (sic) to 2015 and decided to stick around. This is Sam Cooke at his most soulful moment (River) and Jackie Wilson wearing his loosest tie (Brown Skin Girl).

– Why I love it: there are plenty of singers and artists who attempt to redo the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll with some sort of homage to the greats but end up sounding like cheap ripoffs or insincere copycats. Instead, Leon was just born a few decades too late. This is late-night soul done right in 2015.

6) Dustin Kensrue – Carry the Fire

Dustin Kensure Carry the Fire
– Standout tracks: Ruby, Back to Back, Carry the Fire

– What it sounds like: forget everything you know about “the lead singer of Thrice.” This is a singer-songwriter showing the world what he can do….write great songs and back them up with outstanding musicianship and commanding vocals.

– Why I love it: the band who plays aside Dustin here is incredible, reminiscent of The Band playing with Dylan in the 60s. Dustin sings with more soul than Joe Cocker at most times, partly due to the subject of this content. Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road” tells us that deep down we all have the ability to “Carry the Fire” that’s inside of us which helps us to keep on going when things get tough. Kensrue creates an album for the dips, dives and dark that life throws at you. These are times when we all can learn how to carry the fire and never give up.

5) The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Decemberists What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World – Standout tracks: Lake Song, Make You Better, Cavalry Captain

– What it sounds like: heaven? It’s really good and it’s everything we’ve ever wanted from The Decemberists without the band ever sacrificing what makes them best or compromising.

– Why I love it: The Decemberists have found their North Star and it seems like the telescope is eyeing in on the most focused group of lyrics, music and melodies since the early days. I believe this is The Decemberists at their best, bringing us a diffusion of what they know works combined with ample risks: Colin’s voice is front and center i.e. Lake Song, there are jangly R.E.M.-like guitars (which are now accented with solid acoustic layers), unforgettable lyrical analogies combined with a scholastic vocabulary. The difference here? This time, it feels like home — comfortable, warm yet challenging.

4) Civil Twilight – Story of an Immigrant

Civil Twilight Story of an Immigrant – Standout tracks: River Child, All My Clothes, Holy Dove

– What it sounds like: you’ll read about how the band are from South Africa, were a U2 cover band in a past life and sound at times like Muse. Leave this all behind — while the songs themselves may resemble their influences at times, the albums are guaranteed to sound like nothing you’ve heard before.

– Why I love it: this band makes me feel alive. They sing about rivers, running wild, rhythms in nature, shedding distractions, embracing life, believing in the people in your life and always asking yourself “what does all this mean?” This is a band and album you feel, not hear. Civil Twilight are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands with two solid releases in a row.

3) Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell – Sing Into My Mouth

Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell Sing Into My Mouth

 – Standout tracks: Bullet Proof Soul, No Way Out of Here, Am I a Good Man

– What it sounds like: two artists who are enjoying music more than ever by singing someone else’s lyrics (which means they get to focus on the MUSIC). Combine Iron & Wine’s enigmatic, soft mortality with Band of Horses’ country insights and you have Sing Into My Mouth. But it’s better than that (much much better).

– Why I love it: this album is beautiful. The integrity of the instrumentation is matchless and perfectly suited to the selection of songs. During certain moments, you feel like you’ve figured it all out: it’s like reading a good book, coupled with a perfect glass of wine and finally realizing that your soulmate is sitting right in front of you, all at the same time. This is comfort food. This is warmth. This is relief, contentment and a promise that everything’s finally falling into place.

2) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Chasing Yesterday

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds Chasing Yesterday – Standout tracks: Riverman, They Dying of the Light, While the Song Remains the Same

– What it sounds like: Noel Gallagher breaking free of the confines of brit-pop and not worrying about pleasing anybody else (including his brother and the rest of Oasis). There’s plenty of strings, thumping bass and horns (much to Liam’s dismay) and a surprising lack of layered electric guitars, a welcomed change.

– Why I love it: it’s as honest as anything we’ve ever heard from him. It shows Noel doing something different while building unapologetically on his signature style and simple chord structure. This is as good (or better) than anything to come out of the Oasis songbook because you get to see Mr. Gallagher having fun while appreciating his muses (love, music and swagger) once again. Most importantly, it’s Noel stepping out from behind the songwriting gig to instead pull the strings, sing his melodies and masterplan his path all the while.

1) Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Father John Misty I Love You Honeybear – Standout tracks: When You’re Smiling and Astride Me, Strange Encounter, Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)

– What it sounds like: folk-infused chamber pop and a mix of the early 60s with early 90s. It makes you want to cry, laugh and shout all at the same time. You’ll be air drumming your heart out while weeping like a baby. This one folking rocks.

– Why I love it: At it’s best, Honeybear is better than 99% of the albums I’ve heard in the last 15 years. At it’s worst, it’s still better than 90% of the albums I’ve heard in the last 15 years. If Father John’s first album Fear Fun was the bear being awoken, then Honeybear is the bear learning how to steal picnic baskets from unassuming campers. The vocals are godlike, as holy as the Father John moniker insinuates, making you feel like you’ve had that first cup of coffee in the morning laced with a shot of whiskey. The lyrics create stories that sound like something you’d hear from a village elder who’s had too much to drink and too little sleep. At this rate, the music could be coming from a Casio AZ-1 midi controlled keypad and you’d still have a great album. Instead you get A+ musicianship as the proverbial icing on the cake. This one feels like your first kiss – awkward, too short, rewarding and ultimately unforgettable.


Honorable Mention: Lord Huron – Strange Tails, Elvis Presley – If I Can Dream, Lovedrug – Notions, Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues, My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall

Vinyl View: Harry Nilsson – A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

Delicately crafted orchestral arrangements accompany impeccable vocals from one of the ’70s greatest artists. Comfort music at it’s finest.  

It was between McCartney’s debut solo album McCartney, the new Rx Bandits LP Gemini, Her Majesty or a third record, and more importantly an artist that I had shrugged off for years — an artist I knew had some serious clout (this musician had been recommended to me by my musical pundit brother many times before) but was never given a fair chance.

Listening to a Harry Nilsson record always felt like a gamble — a Russian roulette of the turntable that could result in 45 minutes of precious vinyl time I could never get back. His name would pop up in conversations both familial and semi-social and I figured I would half like it, half think it was unworthy of spinning again. Thankfully, I finally gave this aforementioned artist a chance.

130717_CBOX_Nilsson.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeA Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is incredible and sounds like something you would hear in a dimly lit café somewhere in Venice. The arrangements are spectacular (a tip of the cap to conductor and arranger Gordon Jenkins) and the production is absolutely perfect (thanks to Derek Taylor’s clean and crisp vision). This record is one part comfort and two parts fervor.

The real genius in this record lies within Harry’s ability to take a bunch of standards, sung previously by the likes of Nat Cole, Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra, and transform them into songs that feel more like “In My Life” (Beatles) than “That’s Life” (Sinatra). Nilsson was capable of taking these classic cuts and nudging them into the modern era with a contemporary twist. Even in 2014, these songs feel more like tracks from a lost Ben Folds album rather than songs you might hear at a rundown karaoke bar.

Nilsson’s tone is welcoming on nearly every song, especially album opener “Lazy Moon” and “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It).” Delicate string arrangements accompany his captivating voice all throughout A Little Touch with a prime example being the echoing orchestration on “For Me And My Gal.” But the highlight of his singing abilities is shown during the falsetto breakdown of “This Is All I Ask.”

Nilsson and Lennon John Lennon always spoke of Harry with very high regard and is reported as saying, “Nilsson’s my favorite group.” Nilsson has clearly mastered the art of dynamics with a perfect vocal delivery on every song. The album’s closer “As Time Goes By” sounds familiar at first but it quickly becomes apparent that Harry’s take feels warmer than any previous versions.

Each song takes the listener to a place where wine glasses never empty, the fireplace never goes out and good conversation never ends with tracks both full of comfort (“What’ll I Do”) and familiarity (“Always”).

Final View:  While the songs are borrowed, the passion is unique and Harry’s vocals are unmatched. Whether or not they realize it, the Adeles and Bublés owe something to Mr. Nilsson for bridging the gap between vintage 1940s singers and contemporary artists. A Little Touch gives you a taste of life where everything feels settled and placed right where it should be.

Overall score: 8.5/10

Vinyl View: Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain

Cinematic jazz lead by a trumpet engulfed in purity, provacativity and unmatched prowess.  It begins as a romantic journey that develops into a dramatic apex and finally returns to a gentle, comfortable location.  More classical than the usual improv-based jazz that Miles Davis fans are used to.  

Let me preface this review by stating a very important fact: I am no jazz aficionado.  However, my qualifications for this review are as follows:

  • I own and enjoy multiple jazz records (including another Miles Davis/Gil Evans record, Quiet Nights)
  • I have always been extremely fascinated by 1940s Jazz, including Django Reinhardt’s two-fingered, French-Gypsy, swing-style
  • I believe that I have a good ear for understanding music that’s considered “different”, while enjoying modern progressive artists that reference Miles Davis as a major inspiration

Miles DavisSide I:

“Concierto De Aranjuez”

For the sake of this review, I have broken down this lengthy track into four sections – divided by tempo changes or other dramatic alterations

– Part I – 

The album starts with the mysterious clattering of castanets, followed by some distant horns, strings and elegant percussion that builds upon a slow cinematic experience.  Lead by Davis’ signature trumpet, the beginning of the marvelous “Concierto De Aranjuez” sounds like the start of a gentle rainfall. An elegant string section, gentle harp and perfectly supportive horn section join carefully placed hits of the high-hat and a muddled bass line.  This part of the song would go well with a cloud-covered walk along the beaches of Cadaqués, or any other coastal town in Barcelona.

– Part II – 

In the middle of a verse (near the three minute mark) the beauty is replaced by an outburst of electrifying sound, fronted by an aggressive array of horns.  As the beat changes into a swing, the mood is carefully altered.  Blistering horns and eerie strings support Davis’ provocative melody. The production here is superb – giving Miles Davis the ideal platform for showcasing his incredible talent alongside Gil Evans superb orchestral arrangement.  The end of this section sounds like a theatrical form of jazz with a dramatic eeriness (I’m guessing Sondheim may have found inspiration here for elements of Sweeney Todd’s 1979 musical score).

– Part III – 

Another significant development in “Concierto De Aranjuez” occurs right before the eight minute mark.  The castanets return as Evans, once again, alters the arrangement to deviate his orchestra into a new direction. Davis’ muted trumpet creates a pure sound that compliments the adventurous mood of this third act.  It now feels more like traditional jazz than any of its proceeding moments. An interesting bass line carries the majority of this section, until the climatic apex around the twelve minute mark.

– Part IV – 

Another intense outpouring of trumpets and other horns prelude this final section. Aggressive tambourine shakes lead directly into an anxious arrangement of brass.  A gentle array of woodwinds follow and seem to apologize for the previous hostility.  The listener is taken on a new journey as quiet becomes the leading element.  Davis’ signature trumpet closes out this track as the castanets return one final time – taking you back to the calming beach on Cadaqués. 

“Will O’ The Wisp”

The second track, “Will O’ The Wisp”, has a contemporary structure (especially when compared to it’s predecessor).  The catchy melody is easy to follow and the orchestra works to compliment Miles throughout the cut.  A soulful bass provides bottom something primarily dominated by high pitched trumpets.  “Will O’ The Wisp” feels more like an interlude than a complete song with the sole mission of preparing the listener for side two of the album.

Miles Davis Gil EvansSide II:

“The Pan Piper”

Side II begins with a brief declaration by Miles’ vibrant trumpet, followed by trailing flutes and breezy bells.  “The Pan Piper” is a great song that fuses together Gil Evans’ excellent sense of certain classical elements with upbeat jazz.  The real hero of this track is  found in the partnership established between the bass and drums which gives Davis the perfect canvas to sketch his playing upon. You’ll wish the rhythm track went on forever or at the very least, spanned the entirety of the track (instead of just the second half).

“Saeta”

If the Spanish military had a soundtrack, “Saeta” would definitely be on it.  Davis’ timbre is exceptional here as his instrument takes center stage.  But the rest of the song seems odd with a marching drum beat that dominates, droning strings and a horn sound reminiscent of a réveil from a bugle. “Saeta” is strange when set amongst the other cuts on Sketches of Spain and is the only questionable moment on the record.  It seems like there must be a backstory to this song, which could help give it context.

“Solea”

“Solea” also includes a similar military drum beat, but instead uses this more as a starting point, rather than the main basis for the song.  Maybe the strongest piece of work on Sketches of Spain, this final track has near perfect production.  A magnifying bass line fits in perfectly amongst the rhythm section.  Evans’ arrangements help to compliment Davis’ playing in a way that feels planned but not stale in any way.  For me, this is the song that includes everything I want from a Miles Davis record: a great melody played flawlessly by Miles, has both quiet instances and climactic apexes, and establishes a refreshing structure that is contained yet still feels improvised at times.  Listeners of “Solea” are guaranteed to start dancing or moving in their seat during the concluding moments as Sketches of Spain draws to a close.

Final View: Sketches of Spain truly is a masterpiece – but it also requires an asterisk (*): this challenging record is not meant to be played in the background of a casual dinner party, like some other jazz albums.  Careful listening is required to enjoy the moments of quiet beauty while the surprising outbursts of sound could send the wine glass of any casual listener flying across the room. Listener, consider yourself warned and appreciate this cliché – expect the unexpected.

Overall score: 9/10

Recommended if you like: Miles Davis albums, jazz with minimal improv, classical music

Vinyl View: The Doors – L.A. Woman

L.A. Woman is a challenging, yet wonderful record that feels like it was created by two completely individual entities.  The first being a somewhat uninspired and bored Jim Morrison, who still sounds great at certain moments (his involvement consisted of stepping into a bathroom recording studio infrequently throughout the sessions, only to lay down his vocal tracks). The second, a band who set out to prove that they were, in fact, worthy of their own individual praise – aside from the shadow cast by their ever-popular frontman. Overall, this is still an outstanding album (especially when assessed next to other artists – separately from Morrison Hotel or their near-perfect eponymous debut).

As previously mentioned, the most surprising elements of this album exist in the amazing musicianship found on each of the ten tracks.  While Morrison’s vocals are irreplaceable, The Doors sound as good or even better on L.A. Woman than any other professional studio musicians who worked during that time period (i.e. The Wrecking Crew).

doorslawomansessionsSide I:

“The Changeling” is a groove-centered cut that weaves around a bass and keyboard riff that perfectly supports Melissa’s most electrifying vocals on the album.  The chorus takes quite the turn (is this what he meant by “The Changeling” from the title?) as the rhythm changes, followed by a bridge with a slow build-up and resonating apex. By the end of “The Changeling”, you’re definitely stomping your feet and rocking your head in soulful accordance.  This song stands out as one of the best on L.A. Woman.

While being one of the most popular songs on the record and in the band’s catalog, “Love Her Madly” sounds just as relevant and exciting in 2013.  Morrison croons gently (with plenty of effects laced atop his vocals) over the great backing of Manzarek’s skillful organ (that feels like a Western saloon serenade), Densmore’s simple drums and Krieger’s crafty guitar work (consisting of that signature upstroke riff).  “Love Her Madly” shows hints of the 60s hangover while looking forward with superb production quality.

Aggressive vocals and a heavy bass riff kick off the third track on Side I – “Been Down So Long”.  This bluesy number includes more swagger and soul than anything produced after 1980 while proving to be one of the best tracks on the record. During the momentary lapse in vocals,  Krieger grabs a slide to showcase his underrated guitar skills and Densmore shows off his impressive stick handling.  Morrison also sounds almost as good here as he does on “Roadhouse Blues”.

Four fifths of the way through the first side of the album, The Doors break into a slow rhythm and blues number called “Cars Hiss By My Window”.  This fairly standard 12-bar blues is a nod to traditional blues standards – lacking really any effort from The Lizard King and seeming more like a setup for the next song than an actual attempt at anything creatively appealing.

“L.A. Woman” closes out the first half of the similarly named album with one of the most famous intros of any song from the early 70s.  Morrison’s sloppy bathroom vocals contrast, yet compliment, the extremely tight backing track from the rest of The Doors until he breaks into the memorable chorus.  Clocking in at 7:49, this cut includes plenty of riffing, solos and jams to be considered historical proof of this band’s excellent musical abilities.  Although, cutting out the extra content (about 3 minutes worth of jamming) would have made this lengthy track a legendary rock classic without any faults.  I can imagine this track reaching its peak enjoyment level on a long drive up Santa Monica Blvd. with the windows rolled down on a summer night in L.A.

JimMorrison_MarkBenno_LAWomanSide II: 

Side II is much stranger than the first. Part two starts off with one of the strangest songs by The Doors, “L’America” is haunting and mystifying – introducing a very different vibe for the second side.  A marching drum beat carries the listener headstrong into Morrison’s vocals that don’t really seem to go anywhere…until the chorus.  “L’America” is interesting but doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the record. This cut resembles what a Carlos Castaneda novel would sound like put to music.  Seemingly, the bridge gives you reason to come back at a later time and give it another go.

“Hyacinth House” brings you back with an uplifting melody and welcoming keyboard part (sounding like a resonating church organ).  This song carries the listener along a journey perfect for awakening on a Sunday Morning.  Even though that music was written by Krieger, Morrison’s lyrics suggest finding something new in life – i.e. Jim’s immediate exit to Paris following the album’s completion.  An enjoyable track that feels like the calm before the storm…

One of the few covers ever recorded by the band, “Crawling King Snake” slithers along, as the name suggests.  This old blues standard puts Manzarek’s organ and Krieger’s trademark Gibson SG guitar sound front and center as the rest of the studio band crunches and attacks the empty space.  Although the lyrics are not his own, Jim seems to be relating directly to the reptilian themes found within the words (just as The Lizard King should).  It’s a great blues number, played by a band that idolized the blues and can pull it off as well as anyone.

“The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” contains lyrics that were taken from one of Morrison’s poems – which is most likely obvious considering that most of the words are spoken, rather than sung.  While being intriguing, it seems like more of a piece of history than something a listener would want to return to.

Distant echos haunt this track.  Thunder and rain provide a chaotic backdrop.  The melody is unforgettable and the musicianship is unmatched.  Manzarek’s organ solo is intelligent and beautiful, while falling down like raindrops as it crescendos into another verse.  Elvis’ bass player, Jerry Scheff, lays down one of the most famous bass lines in The Doors discography. Morrison sounds unbelievable on this song – youthful, aggressive, confident, frightened and frightening all at the same time.  This “swan song” is the perfect ending to an amazing band that created an inspiring final album (at least, the final album with their singer) that is completely forward-thinking.

I can see Jim leaving the studio during the last few minutes of this track – leaving his band to make the final statement as he boards his plane to Paris.

Overall score: 8/10

Recommended if you like: Morrison Hotel (by The Doors), The Coral, blues, L.A rock and early 70s music