Thursday, December 28, 2006

Rockin' the Hereafter

From This is Your Brain on Music: "Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only the last several centuries... Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody's lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone."

From USA Today: Fans Honor Godfather of Soul at Apollo "Hundreds of fans followed behind the caisson singing the chorus of Brown's anthem, 'Say it Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud.'"

Groove in peace, James Brown. 5/3/33-12/25/06

He even provides his own apropos soundtrack for this moment: "That's Life" by James Brown

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Loving the lesser-knowns

I'm currently reading a fascinating book called "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel J. Levitin (more on that later) and I ran across a brilliant explanation of the music theory behind something we all intrinsically understand - the genius of the Beatles:

"The Beatles 'For No One' resolves on the V chord (the fifth degree of the scale we’re in) and we wait for a resolution that never comes - at least not in that song. But the very next song on the album Revolver starts with the very chord we were waiting to hear."

This led me to think about some of the Beatles' B-sides (like "For No One") which are often forgotten when people discuss the genius of the Beatles. My top 10 favorite lesser-known or underappreciated Beatles songs, in no particular order:

1. If I Fell
2. For No One
3. You Never Give Me Your Money
4. I'll Be Back
5. For You, Blue ("Because you're a sweet a lovely thing, I love you.")
6. I Will
7. Yes It Is ("If you wear red tonight...")
8. Sun King
9. I've Got a Feeling
10. Two of Us

You'd never guess looking at this list that my favorite Beatles album is actually The White Album, would you?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Totally blown away

I don't remember the last time a new album literally took my breath away - it only happens a few times a year at best, and I listen to lots of music. But Imogen Heap's album Speak for Yourself did just that. It literally left me gasping, my heart racing - it is falling-in-love fantastic.

Her sound is totally unique. It's like the musical equivalent of a Russian palace - lush, exotic, orchestral melodies rising above a sparse and extreme foundation. You can almost hear the snow falling in the background. Totally mesmerizing.

Highlights include the pop-ish "Good Night and Go" (featuring my favorite lyrics of the season: "Why'd you have to be so cute?/ It's impossible to ignore you/ Must you make me laugh so much?/ It's bad enough we get along so well") as well as the transcendentally beautiful "Hide and Seek" - a multi-tracked a capella epiphany that is nothing short of sublime.

No wonder she's nominated for the best new artist Grammy.

Update: Listen to "Hide and Seek" in its entirety on Heap's MySpace page.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Feet = happy ears

I had to see Happy Feet over the weekend, as it combines two of my favorite things - arctic things and tap-dancing. What a genius combination!

The premise of the movie is fantastic - in an Antartic world devoid of anything tangible (ice is transient and ever-changing) the main currency is music - it establishes power in the group and serves as the main element in the mating ritual. As the movie opens, the main character's parents meet through a unique mash-up of Prince's "Kiss" and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and from that moment on, I was hooked.

The movie plays out as a surprisingly deep and bittersweet comment on exclusion, environmentalism and individualism (a refreshing depature from most computer-animated movies these days), but the real genius of the movie to me was the integration of the music, from Queen's "Somebody to Love" to Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" to Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" to the Beach Boys' "In My Room." The soundtrack is available now, but I tend to prefer the original versions of songs, so I will be making my own compilation of Happy Feet songs when the soundtrack listing gets posted on IMDb.

In the meantime, see the movie.

Update: As usual, the All Music Guide says it best: "[The soundtrack contains] unexpected shots of cultural Zeitgeist and a welcome break from the standard soundtrack cover tunes."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Aimee Mann and great holiday tunes

Update: If you're hankerin' for more Aimee Mann after my post a few days ago, visit WOXY radio to listen to an archived broadcast of her first annual Christmas show recorded recently in San Francisco. The broadcast opens with an interview about the her new holiday album and goes on to include the full set from Bimbo's 365. So great!

When you're done with that, check WOXY's Holiday Mixer - by far the coolest and least cloying holiday station out there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Holiday Mix 2006

So every year since 1999, I've made a holiday mix to give as a stocking stuffer/token gift for everyone from my crush du jour to my cubicle-mates. With all the holiday music out there, I always chose a theme to help guide the creation of the mix, and the theme usually results in a snappy title as well. Previous years' titles have included "Martini Christmas," "Happy Alternadays," and "Santa Got Soul!"

This year's mix title? "Divas We Have Heard On High" - a collection of all-female holiday hits heavy on the power-pop. To qualify for the mix, each songstress had to be, in my mind, a diva - which is not to say she had to be a spoiled prima donna. She just had to have the vocal pipes to qualify as a "diva."

Remember the "no snobbery" rule I set for this blog? Well, you're going to see it in spades here. From true diva power-pop to folk revival to country Christmas crossover to ... Amy Grant? I know it looks like a total mess. But you'll just have to trust me - it hangs together really well and makes you appreciate the women of this world who can, in the vernacular of jazz and hip-hop, really blow.

So, without further ado, the playlist:

1. Angels We Have Heard On High by Christina Aguilera
2. Merry Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Mariah Carey
3. White Christmas by Darlene Love
4. Carol of the Bells by Destiny's Child
5. O Come O Come Emanuel by Whitney Houston
6. Ave Maria by Joan Baez
7. Here Is Christmas by Ann and Nancy Wilson (of Heart)
8. Early Christmas Morning by Cyndi Lauper
9. Away in a Manger by Gladys Knight and the Pips
10. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? by the Carpenters
11. Merry Christmas, Baby by Sheryl Crow with Eric Clapton
12. Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow by Martina McBride
13. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away by Amy Grant
14. It Just Don't Feel Like Christmas by Rihanna
15. This Christmas by Christina Aguilera

Monday, December 11, 2006

Songwriting genius

Like a lot of people, the first time I heard of Aimee Mann was the Magnolia Soundtrack. And also like a lot of people, that led me to go out and pick up Bachelor No. 2 and I'm With Stupid. It's great that she got the recognition she completely deserves. She's even got a Christmas album out this year.

But you rarely hear anyone mention her debut Whatever. It's so underappreciated that I found it in the clearance bin recently and bought it for under $10. And that is a steal, because this album is great. When you think what else was going on musically in 1993, from the grunge of Pearl Jam and Nirvana to the hardcore of Tool and Sepultura to the angry-girl eclecticism of PJ Harvey and Bjork, Aimee Mann sounds like she came from another planet.

What was most interesting to me, though, was how well-formed her songwriting was even on this debut. She is one of the best modern songwriters out there for the simple reason that where every other songwriter strives to master the art of the simple and old-fashioned rhyming couplet, Aimee Mann writes lyrics that read as prose poems, complex and insightful. Prose poems are incredibly difficult to fit into a musical line. And yet she does, every time. And these aren't inaccesible songs. The melodies are catchy, the verses get stuck in your head for days. But reading the lyrics to my favorite song on the album, "I've Had It," you'd never be able to label them strictly as lyrics. This is prose poetry. This is art.

I've Had It
by Aimee Mann

We made it down to New York, with everything intact. But as for getting back it was Boo who made the joke: they don't give you any hope but they'll leave you plenty of rope. And Dan came in from Jersey. He went to get the drums, and if Buddy ever comes, we can get it off the ground. I hope someone's coming down, else I can't see hanging around. Oh experience is cheap if that's the company you keep. And a chance is all I need. And I've had it. I've had it. So we all just started playing and then something strange occurred. Not a person stirred. Oh, it started out one way, but it turned out to be okay and I felt somebody should say, "Oh, experience is cheap if that's the company you keep. And before you know that it's free, you've had it. You've had it." Like most amazing things, it's easy to miss and easy to mistake. For when things are really great it just means everything's in its place. When everything was over, and we loaded up the van, I turned and said to Dan, "Dan I guess this is our prime, like they tell us all the time. Were expecting some other kind?" Oh, experience is cheap if that's the company you keep. And I'll never get that disease because I've had it. I've had it. I guess I've had it.

Lovely, no?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Hole in Your Soul

An accidental trip to Blockbuster tonight led me to stumble upon Lightning in a Bottle: A One-Night History of the Blues. (It was one of three, yes three, concert DVDs they had at Blockbuster. No wonder Netflix is kicking their ass.)

The concert aims to be a loose chronological history of the blues in musical form, juxtaposing photos and video of African American life in the 1920s and 1930s with interviews with the old-time blues legends and the inimitable blues music itself. (Looking at photos of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses as you listen to Odetta sing "Jim Crow Blues" is very, very powerful.)

The DVD was executive-produced by Martin Scorcese with famed drummer Steve Jordan (most recently of the John Mayer Trio) as musical director, and probably because of this, there are very few false moments. I will say that Natalie Cole brings an overly-theatrical Broadway version of the blues to everything she sings and Chuck D of Public Enemy absolutely butchers John Lee Hooker's masterpiece "Boom Boom" by turning it into an anti-war statement ("No More Boom Boom",) but these moments are few and far between. For the most part, this DVD showcases the blues legends in their element, grittily singing the songs that made them indispensable icons of the art form that is music.

From the opening note sustained by African vocalist Angelique Kidjo to India.Arie's haunting rendition of the lynching ballad "Strange Fruit" to Solomon Burke's triumphant "Turn On Your Lovelight" to B.B. King leading the big finale "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," this is a blues tour-de-force. Netflix it now.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Lovin' Rhino

Doing a little online Christmas shopping, I stumbled upon this awesome four-CD compilation of regional and little-known funk and soul music. Rest assured, it is now on the top of my Christmas wish list. 91 tracks ought to keep me groovin' through the workday, eh?

The box set is another great Rhino collection. If you haven't discovered the Warner subsidiary's trove of eclectic "retrospective" CDS, here's a link to the official Web site, where you can also read about the 12 Grammys they were just nominated for (who knew?) or listen to a podcast interview with Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders. What's not to love?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Spiraling on a snow day

Happy December! I was lucky enough to get a foot of snow as a beginning-of-winter surprise. Sounds sarcastic, I know, but I LOVE snow days! Magical things happen on the day of the first snowfall.

This year's magical thing? I found a new band I just had to share: Spiraling. Any band that claims the Beatles, Weezer, Yes, Goffin/King, and XTC among their influences is worth a listen, no?

Check out four of their songs at their Myspace page. Their version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" is actually sung to The Who's "Baba O'Reilly." Now that's festive.