Category Archives: Top 5

Songs For Christmas: Volumes I-X Ranked

A little context before launching into this list. Between 2001 and 2005, Sufjan Stevens would personally record a short collection of Christmas tunes (lots of original songs, lots of reworked carols, etc.) and give it to friends as a gift. In 2005, he collected these and released them publicly as Songs For Christmas.

songsforchristmas

Then he did it again in 2012 with Silver & Gold.

silverandgold

So we’ve got ten volumes of the most eclectic mix of songs and sounds. I am ranking them here in order of my least to most favorite. Thanks to Owen for the list idea.

10. Let It Snow: Vol. IX

letitsnow

Volume IX kicks off this list at the bottom as the most confusing volume in the collection. There are a lot of originals, but then some very odd takes on classic carols, like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” It feels like a lot of missteps to me. I commend Sufjan for going out on a limb, even with the traditional tunes he chooses, but these are just a little too left of center for me to really get into them.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Sleigh Ride”
  2. “X-mas Spirit Catcher”
  3. “Christmas Face”

9. Christmas Infinity Voyage: Vol. VIII

christmasinfinity

Sufjan also uses a great deal of electronic instrumentation on this volume, but to slightly better effect than Volume IX. I like some of it, but a lot of it is unnecessary and kind of indulgent. Do we need a 15-minute original tune to close this volume out? Not particularly. More than half this volume is heavily electronic, and it makes for a unique listen or two, but I don’t want to hear “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or “Good King Wenceslas” through such a binary filter. Regardless, Sufjan still gets points for creativity here, throwing in a Prince cover with “Alphabet St.” It’s bizarre, and I have no idea why it got stuck on this Christmas collection, but it’s cool. And “Christmas In The Room” is a beautiful acoustic song among all the blips and bloops of the electronic stuff. And that 15-minute original I was talking about? The first five minutes of it are fantastic, like Sufjan’s take on a country/western song.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Christmas In The Room”
  2. “Alphabet St.”
  3. “Angels We Have Heard On High”

8. Noel: Vol. I

noel

This is at number eight mainly due to the lack of traditional Christmas songs. There are really only two vocal, traditional carols on this one, and the rest is instrumental, original, and then “Amazing Grace,” which sticks out like a slightly bruised thumb. I love the instrumental “Silent Night” on this one, but it’s only 45 seconds long which is kind of a bummer. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is nice, but a little heavy on the combination of banjo and lute (or whatever woodwind instrument is playing in the intro) for my liking.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”
  2. “Silent Night”
  3. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

7. Ding! Dong!: Vol. III

dingdong

Sufjan goes for some more old school tunes on this one. He’s also got a very interesting pair of original songs, “Come On! Let’s Boogey To The Elf Dance!” and “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” The first is a pretty lightweight tune and I can imagine kids enjoying singing along, while the latter is a much more melancholy song, reminding me very much of something off of Seven Swans. This volume also has an absolutely stunning version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” but it is tragically short. The rest of this volume is easily skippable for me. “We Three Kings” is a snooze fest, and while “O Holy Night” is one of my very favorite Christmas songs, the instrumentation of this version just doesn’t do anything for me, and robs the song of a lot of its emotional punch because of it.

Stand-outs:

  1. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  2. “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!”
  3. “The Friendly Beasts”

6. I Am Santa’s Helper: Vol. VII

santashelper

I initially had this lower on the list, but there are a few really powerful songs. This volume is almost solely with originals and old songs. I’m talking old songs, like traditional vocal compositions, songs sung by madrigal choirs in the olden days. Listening to this reminds me much less of decorating Christmas trees and more of attending midnight mass (I assume they do only old songs at midnight mass, I’ve never actually been). That being said, the old stuff can have some weightiest, most meaningful lyrics that are really affecting. For example, “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” is not only a gorgeous vocal arrangement, but the words communicate this beautiful prayer towards Christ’s arrival that is deeper than most carols. Then you hit the opposite thematic end with “Ah Holy Jesus,” a German song written in the early 1600s. The song in full is a very penitent prayer to God and the admittance that Jesus suffered on our behalf and the only real response to that truth is to follow him. However, Sufjan notably chooses to sing only the first and fourth verses, creating a very melancholy tune that is rarely heard during this season. Incredibly powerful.

What’s odd about this volume is hearing songs like that against the lo-fi, gritty, crunchy originals like “Happy Family Christmas” and “Mr. Frosty Man.” These aren’t my favorite Sufjan songs strictly because I dislike the dissonance he plays with, so often coupled with lots of guitar feedback. These tunes keep this volume from really soaring.

Stand-outs:

  1. “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?”
  2. “Ah Holy Jesus”
  3. “Christ The Lord Is Born”

5. Hark!: Vol. II

hark

Hark! is a good volume that wants to be great. There are some very good songs here, but overall nothing that I find stellar, save for the non-Christmas song, ironically enough. “What Child Is This Anyway?” is just a tad indulgent, clocking in at just under 7 minutes, and both “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” are awesome, but both are instrumentals that end before the 1 minute mark. Then you’ve got three old Christmas tunes, and I love when Sufjan does old hymns that sound like Reformation-era tunes, but “I Saw Three Ships” suffers from the Renaissance Fair treatment like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from Noel: Vol. I and “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is a very lo-fi, stripped down version, and it would’ve been great to hear Sufjan instrumentalize it a bit more. And then you’ve got “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” which doesn’t technically fall under the Christmas carol umbrella, but Sufjan knocks this one out of the park. On top of being one of my favorite hymns, Sufjan’s ever-so-slightly wavering voice suits it perfectly. This tune is a great example of banjo used against type, and the result is this gorgeous blend of instruments that challenges what good Christian music can sound like and doesn’t just end up a bluegrass tune. Major props to Sufjan for recording the original tune also, featuring the “Here I raise my ebenezer” line, one of the most affecting and worshipful lines I’ve ever heard in all of Christian music.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing”
  2. “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”
  3. “Angels We Have Heard On High” / “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” (these could essentially be the same song)

4. Christmas Unicorn: Vol. X

christmasunicorn

This is a weird one and I’m kind of surprised it landed in the Top 5. But as I listen through it, I can’t help but love a lot of these songs. “Christmas Unicorn” is one of the stranger lyrically themed songs I’ve ever heard but (aside from the length) it totally gets me. This volume has just enough electronica that I don’t want to skip all the songs, and most of album consists of very original takes on common tunes that it warrants many repeat listens. “Up On The Housetop” is the perfect example of how thoroughly Sufjan can flip a song on its head and make it sound like you’re listening to a completely original song of his. Chords aren’t the same, melodies aren’t the same, and you’re left with something that might not hit that nostalgic Christmas, but something that’s definitely worth listening to again.

Special mention to “Silver And Gold.” Some of this tune is actually borrowed from a song taken from an old Rankin/Bass TV special, but Sufjan has reappropriated it into something truly powerful. A sharply-edged tune about material possessions and their dominance of this season, this isn’t an outright bashing of American consumerism, but a more general plea for a spirit of humility towards how much we are blessed with and how little we truly value the one True Gift. And it’s major throw-back Sufjan, musically. A beautiful marriage of finger picked acoustic guitar and gentle, melancholy piano chords. One of my very favorite songs off the entire collection.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Silver And Gold”
  2. “Christmas Unicorn”
  3. “We Need A Little Christmas” 

3. Joy: Vol. IV

joy

This makes the Top 3 of this list because of what Sufjan does with some pretty generic carols. He manages to make listenable one of my least favorite carols, “Little Drummer Boy,” by eschewing the classic marching drum beat that is so ubiquitous in renditions of this tune. He replaces it with a light acoustic guitar strum and adds a good blend of instrumentation on top of it. It’s so easy for this song to become the most repetitive thing and Sufjan avoids that completely. Also notable in this volume is “Away In A Manger,” which features an absolutely gorgeous bridge that is never heard in common renditions of the song. It elevates this lullaby-sounding song into a legitimate prayer to Christ, a plea for closeness and relationship with the human incarnation of God’s glory. Very awesome. Sufjan also has two originals on this volume, one being the so-so “It’s Christmas Time!” and the other being the somber and beautiful “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” This is easily one of my very favorite original tunes on all 10 volumes.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”
  2. “Away In A Manger”
  3. “The Little Drummer Boy”

2. Gloria: Vol. VI

gloria

It makes sense this is the first volume of the second half of Sufjan’s Christmas volumes, as it is definitely the most thematically like the first five volumes, all of which stick pretty closely to the musical motif of Sufjan’s state-based albums. If you listen to the volumes chronologically, you won’t be thrown off by this album because it flows so well with the first five volumes. What I love is that it’s a gorgeous blend of his old and new styles. Acoustic foundations with the slightest hints of the electronica he’s adopted in the last few years. I also love the mix of songs he does on this one, going way back with “Coventry Carol” but staying fresh with his own composition “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past”and “Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree).”

Stand-outs:

  1. “Lumberjack Christmas”
  2. “Silent Night”
  3. “Barcarola (You Could Be A Christmas Tree)”

1. Peace: Vol. V

peace

Even as I put this at the top of my list, I wish this was an easier call to make. The interesting thing about all of Sufjan’s Christmas volumes is how diverse they are, from each other but also from themselves. You’ve got a wide array of styles, instruments, song choices, and originals on any given volume. It’d be far easier for me to just make a “Best Of” collection and call it good, but then I hate Best Ofs and I wouldn’t feel right doing it. So I’m left at the number 1 spot, bestowing it upon Peace

Six(!) originals, three old carols, one modern carol and one non-Christmas related song. Weird variety on this one, but it wins me over on the strength of the old carols and more than half of the originals. “Jupiter Winter,” “Sister Winter” (kind of lazy on the song titles, eh Sufjan?), and “Star Of Wonder” are absolutely beautiful tunes, and minus the Christmas-themed lyrics, these would fit right in on any of Sufjan’s states-based albums.  This “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite version of all the volumes. It consists of just sparse piano chords, but the cold-winter-night-crisp tone of the instrument coupled with the minor-heavy chord progression Sufjan chooses for the song just rips me to pieces. Sufjan really pulls out all the stops with his originals on this volume and brings the heat with his old carol instrumentals. And to top it off, his version of a non-Christmas hymn stops me in my tracks. While I hate to choose a favorite, this volume is the winner.

Stand-outs:

  1. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  2. “Star Of Wonder”
  3. “Holy, Holy, Holy”

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Top 10 Favorite Ben Folds (Five) Songs

10. “Brainwascht” – Ben Folds, Way To Normal

This is a prime example of how wickedly biting Ben Folds can be with his songwriting. Story goes that when Ben Folds was with his now-ex-wife Frally Hynes, there was a couple with whom they were friends and collaborated with on the album Fear of Pop, Vol. 1. Fast forward to 2006, Ben and Frally divorce, the couple sides with Frally, and they write a song about the whole situation.

Brainwascht is BF’s response. He calls them out for using a song to comment on a personal relationship by using a song to comment on a personal relationship. But he does it so much better, commenting not only on the inappropriate use of his personal life in someone else’s song, but on their song itself. “There’s something wrong / being copied on a memo / in the form / of a bad country demo…” (Admittedly, their song does suck.) And most pointedly of all, he calls out their hypocrisy by mentioning how their own relationship ultimately failed like Ben and Frally’s. Moral of the story: Don’t emotionally tussle with Ben Folds, for he will cut you down with his razor sharp songwriting.

9. “Army” – Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

BF(F) absolutely rock. Their emotional range is unlike any other artist I’ve ever listened to. They have songs that make you want to break up and weep for weeks, and songs that make you want to jump and shout with good feeling. “Army” falls into the latter category. This is an outstanding anthem song about being young and not knowing what the hell you’re doing with your life and fighting the demons of your past and your family history and your broken down social relationships and accepting all of it and continuing in spite of it. Lyrics alone, it’s not completely as uplifting as I just described; while it’s got a thread of that carry-on nature, it’s also got a clear undercurrent of constantly being on the edge of giving up. But these lyrics on top of this song, and you’ve got an anthem on your hands. Powerful and fun and celebratory.

And as great as this song is on the record, it blasts into the stratosphere in concert. If you have not seen BF live, this song it worth the price of admission.

8. “Still” – Ben Folds, Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP

Even when he’s not writing about love-gone-cold, BF can write the most incisively sad song about life in general. He’s got this way of turning the most mundane detail of an everyday routine into the most emotionally raw commentary. “Still” is about change, which is something many people abhor, even if they don’t recognize it. At its core, life is about change, and BF calls that out in three heartachingly simple verses. First verse: relationship between lovers. Second verse: relationship between parent and child. Third verse: the internal perspective, his relationship with himself. Four lines each, and each hit the pressure points of why change is one of the very few things we can count on in life.

Musically, he’s got this fantastically grand sense of orchestration and knows exactly when to use it for biggest effect. He knows how to build tension throughout and how to get the most feeling out of the musical release of a tune. This song is such a simple song in terms of structure, but the way it builds complements the feeling of the song so incredibly well.

7. “Not The Same” – Ben Folds, Rockin’ The Suburbs

BF can write an anthem song like nobody. What’s interesting is the content of his anthems. This is a tune about a party he attended at his bandmates house where someone took some acid, climbed a tree, and when they came down (off the trip and the tree), they declared themselves a born-again Christian. At the root of this song, I think BF is criticising situational converts. Not even Christian-specific, just people who are not firmly attached to their own idea of themselves and who will change with the wind, or in this case, a crazy acid trip.

Another song that is a revelation to hear live. He splits the audience into three sections and orchestrates them singing the “aahh-aaaahhhh” part of the song. It is breathtaking to hear thousands of people singing this song and joining in. Again, worth the price of admission.

6. “The Last Polka” – Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds Five

Clearly, Ben Folds has his songwriting niche. Six songs on this list are break-up songs. What makes this tune stand out is its speed. It’s got a pretty intense anger to it. This is easily the most frenetic song in this ten-song line up, and the chaotic feel perfectly fits the lyrical nature of the song. This is a tune about two people actively trying to emotionally wound the other, yet placing blame when things don’t go as they plan. This song sounds like a knock-down drag-out fight between two people too worn out by each other to care anymore. The way he just stomps on the chords of the chorus reflects this feeling perfectly, almost like he’s breaking up with the piano.

5. “Belinda” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This is a weird entry on the list because I would attribute it almost more to Nick Hornby than Ben Folds. The song explores the connection between an artist and their work. If you’re a musician, and you have a massive hit that you wrote from a failed relationship, what happens to your brain and your memories of that relationship as you have to sing that song over and over as the years pass? It is generally well-known that Clapton wrote “Layla” about his love for the then-wife of his friend George Harrison (the Beatle). Can you imagine having to sing that song for 40 years thinking about that woman? Awful. What’s beautiful about the Folds/Hornby song is that not only is it an exploration of the connection between the artist and his hit song, but it’s written partially as the song itself. So you’re hearing a song about an artist and his song and the chorus is the song itself. A genius songwriting device.

4. “Trusted” – Ben Folds, Songs For Silverman

What makes this break-up song different from the rest on this list is the upbeat feel of the music. It’s mainly positive with just a hint of tension. This song chronicles a series of moments when a person realizes their partner is basically crazy. The underpinning issue in the relationship is trust, and the hook so eloquently states a fundamental cornerstone of any functional relationship: “…if you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” The partner is neurotic and imaginative, which can be a very dangerous combination. The partner snoops to not only keep tabs on the singer, but also to learn more about him (which starts from a good place, but is such a misguided way to conduct a relationship). As much as I love this whole song, the last verse on its own is 90% of the reason it broke the Top 5 on this list. The whole song has a lot of good build, and it crescendos to this sensational finale that simultaneously illustrates why the singer can’t stay with their partner and communicates the hurt and frustration that can come from trying to make a relationship work while you’re being sabotaged by your partner. BF plays these fantastic triplets that increase the feeling of the pace and so perfectly deliver the urgent yet defeated emotion of the singer. The song increases its tension and build exactly as the singer is feeling little betrayals slowly percolate and grow into a relationship that is too strained under the weight of doubt and dishonesty that it can’t be sustained.

3. “Password” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This song demonstrates the skill Ben Folds (or in this case, Nick Hornby) has in describing the falling out of a relationship in an unusual way. This song is about the facts that this guy knows about his girl, how he’s been listening for as long as they’ve been together and he knows all the right answers. He’d kill on The Newlywed Game. The problem lies in the fact that while all relationships need that sort of factual glue that can help hold things together (it won’t work if you don’t know what the other person likes or dislikes), in the end, every relationship needs Knowing on a deeper level. You’ve got to understand your partner, and the protagonist in this song doesn’t understand his.

What’s also present in this tune is the storyline structure. I feel this is one of the reasons Ben Folds and Nick Hornby found such a connection in each other; they are both natural storytellers. Ben Folds just does it in an unusual way, and much more pointedly than some musicians. This tune reads like a book, where the singer is arguing his side of the relationship, justifying it and saying “Look at how much I know. Of course this works!” It finishes with him realizing that the converse of his original argument is actually the truth. “Look how much I know, but of course that’s not enough and that’s why this doesn’t work.”

2. “Fair” – Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen

The first song I can ever remember hearing by BFF. That feedback distortion sound in the opening minute is like an aural time machine, it immediately throws me back to 15 years old and not exactly understanding what this song was about, but being hypnotized by the harmonies of their voices and the rhythmically stunted feel during the verses. I remember love the sing-along-ness of the chorus’ “bah-BAH-bah, bah-BAH-bah!” This was the first time I’d ever heard a bass guitar used so loudly, basically taking the place of where rhythm guitar usually sits in most pop music. This song was my first introduction to BF’s style of playing keys, and I was immediately hooked. He’s got this beautifully complex way of completely splitting his right and left hand parts, and the resulting sound is like there are two sets of keys rather than one cohesive piano part. And just the whole sound of this song is powerful. These three dudes had just drums, bass and keys, and they were able to make sounds I hadn’t ever heard before. They coaxed a fuller sound out of these three instruments than I previously thought possible.

At 15, I had no clue what BF was ever singing about, and this first song was no exception. Little did I know that it was the first of many BF-written tunes that would be about the confusion and ultimately unsatisfying nature of love. Thankfully, I wasn’t lucid enough as a human being to bother internalizing and processing these lyrics, or I might have stopped listening due to the inherently depressing content of 99% of BF’s music. I was just too distracted singing along with those damn fun bah-bah-bahs.

1. “Smoke” – Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen

I wrote a big long piece about this song some years back. Here’s what I had to say about it. It’s #4 on that list.

-Jon

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Top 5 Recent Kick Ass Apps

I have been finding some insanely great iPhone apps as of late, and I wanted to share my five favorite.

5. Sunrise

I’m still not totally sold on this one yet, but I needed something to round out this list. I’ve been half-heartedly looking for a calendar app to replace the native calendar app that comes with the iPhone. Not that it’s an awful native app (far better than the native Mail app, more on that later), but I’ve been curious to find something with a little more spice that would make me excited to use it more than I do now. I’ve tried a couple  out (Tempo was a big dud) but this one is at least the prettiest. Looks like a creamcicle. And it’s got a pretty workable user interface; while not unforgettable, it certainly functions as you’d expect.

The major drawback is that Sunrise does not sync with the native calendar app. So while I actually do use my Mac calendar, and that syncs automatically to my iPhone calendar is always up to date, Sunrise won’t be. Blah. It does sync to Facebook and Google calendars, so if you use those primarily, you’re in luck. Definitely worth checking this one out, at least.

4. Yahoo! Weather

I don’t usually get excited about the weather, or about tools that describe the weather to you, but holy cow is thing app a real beaut. Big fonts, locale-specific pictures loaded from Flickr, and LOTS of specific weather information for your area. Not only does it give you current temp and weather conditions (what weather app doesn’t?), it gives you the 12 hour forecast, five day forecast, precipitation, wind & pressure, sunrise/set & moon phase data (it’s currently waning crescent, in case you were wondering), and a satellite map of your area. That sounds like information overload, but the design of the app makes all this so easy to digest. What you want is right where you want it. You’ll fall in love right away. The kick-assedness of this app is making me take a look at other Yahoo! apps, something I wouldn’t have even thought of doing a few months ago. Well done, Yahoo!

3. CARROT

I learned about this on Lifehacker a few months back, but it cost $.99 and I was a massive cheapskate so I didn’t get it. Then a week or so ago I found it featured on one of these free app services (AppGratis or something like that), and I got it for free.

For as amusing as this app is, I’d almost say it’d be worth the buck. It’s a to-do list manager, but rather than offering encouraging reminders like an app like Astrid, this one shames you into getting things done to earn rewards. It is the Ron Swanson of to-do apps. What’s funny is that “CARROT” is a sentient robot, and marking things done will make it happy, whereas not getting anything done or not opening it up for a few hours makes it angry. And when CARROT gets angry, it gets mean. If I haven’t been getting things done, I’m greeted by insults when I open up the app (it last greeted me with, “Welcome back, meat bag.”). And if you add exercise as a to-do, it will automatically tell you to go eat some marshmallows, or give you permission to eat Doritos or something. Funny.

But it’s good motivation. It also starts as a pretty low-feature app, but as you mark more things done, more features continually unlock, making the app more useful. It’s pretty awesome. Conversely, I think there are a few glitches. Colleen’s CARROT constantly insults her via her iPhone’s lock screen, or just leaves creepy messages (the last one she showed me, CARROT said, without provocation, “Do you hear the whispers too?”). My CARROT doesn’t leave me nearly as many unsettling messages, and I’d like it to. I did get one last night, and it was awesome:

photo

Also, I want more reminders to do things, and I don’t know if I don’t have my settings set correctly, but she doesn’t always remind me when I need to do something. So there is some definite room for improvement on some of the features. But for sheer enjoyment, this is a better to-do app than any other I’ve tried.

2. Mailbox

This one has revolutionized how I look at email. I can’t imagine trying to handle my email without it now.

The main philosophy behind this app is simple: your email inbox should function as a to-do list. Before this app, I kept loads of ancient emails in my inbox because they had some random piece of information I wanted to hold on to, like a sibling’s updated address, the most recent version of my resume that I’d worked on at school and then sent to myself, an online sales receipt, whatever. It was also cluttered with emails that I needed to do something with, a quarterly statement from my old job’s 401k management company (reminding me I need to roll it over to my new job), a library due date reminder, a note from Mom which needed a reply. Then there was the totally random stuff that is in everybody’s inbox that I had just forgotten to delete. Emails from Old Navy or Kohl’s or [insert any retail store’s name] telling me about a sale which had subsequently expired months back. When I got Mailbox, my inbox was sitting pretty at about 85 messages. I think Colleen’s was over 100.

Mailbox changed all of that. With the simple philosophy that your inbox is a to-do list, in approximately half an hour, both Colleen and I had emptied our inboxes. Completely. Down to ZERO. When was the last time your inbox was at zero? It’s an insanely awesome feeling. How does it work? Basically, you’ve got 4 options for every email. Archive it, delete it, put it in a list, or set a reminder. The archive is the one function I haven’t totally gotten use out of yet, I think it’s basically meant to be a place where emails can go if you want to keep them but not in a list. Delete is obvious. List is great, because I was quickly made four lists that covered most things. Friends, Family, SLA (Special Libraries Association, I’m the treasurer of the Iowa Chapter so I needed a place to put emails I get from the national organization), and Random. Anything that can’t be turned into an actionable item and then deleted goes into one of these lists. Then finally, my favorite part of the whole app is the reminder feature. Let’s say I’ve got an email from Mom that I’ve been meaning to reply to and just haven’t had the time (the age-old excuse). I do want to write her, but it’s 8 am on a Monday and I can’t do it at work. One swipe and Mailbox asks me when I want to be reminded. I can set it for later in the day or week, or pick a specific date/time, or just have Mailbox remind me sometime in the vague future whenever it wants. Whatever I choose, the email then leaves my inbox and I’ll receive it again for whenever I set the reminder. There are certain emails that I don’t particularly want to deal with during the day or even the evening when I’m hanging out with Colleen, so I’ll push them to the weekend to tackle over a cup of Saturday morning coffee. It takes all the stress out of managing my inbox. Literally the most productive app I’ve ever used. And as a reward for getting down to zero, the app presents you with a totally awesome picture from Instagram. It changes every day, and it’s reason enough to get down to zero.

What I also love is how seamlessly this works with Gmail. As of now, Gmail is the only mail client with which Mailbox works. Gripe all you want, but the development team at Orchestra is like 10 people, and they’ve created the greatest productivity app known to man, so cut them a break. What’s even better is that there is an insanely obvious and easy workaround to this only-Gmail problem (which will most likely change with time, as Orchestra has been purchased by cloud-computing service Dropbox). Just have your non-Gmail accounts forwarded automatically to your gmail address. I still get mail from my grad program at Iowa sent to my Iowa account, and all of that is forwarded to my Gmail so I can still manage it through Mailbox. Boom. Problem solved.

And as of a few days ago, they’ve taken down the wait list for the app, so you can go straight to the app store and download it, no waiting in line. If all of this wasn’t fantastic already, the app is FREE. Are you kidding? It seriously couldn’t get any better. USE IT.

1. Zombies, Run!

This was previously Number 2 on this list, and then I took it for a run outside (I had previously only taken this app for a run on the treadmill). Holy cow did that change things. I can say unequivocally that it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a run. Exhilarating, exciting, dynamic, challenging, and just a pinch scary. Let me explain.

Zombies, Run! is essentially an interactive audiobook told from the 2nd person perspective, with your own music intermingled with the story. So you create a playlist of your music that you like to run to, then you start a mission and begin your run.

The story places you in the middle of a post-apocalyptic environment, overrun with zombies. You’re the newest member of Abel Township, a small village made up of various survivors. Each mission advances the story and gives you a clear objective: save the abandoned child outside of Abel’s borders, distract the zombies away from Abel while the entry/exit gate is fixed, recover supplies from a nearby abandoned hospital, etc. When the mission starts, the story begins and you hear various characters interacting for a bit, and then it’ll throw to a song off of your playlist. As you run, you collect items/supplies that you can use to build up Abel Township after the mission is over. And at random times during the music portions, you’ll start to hear a radar blip. This means zombies are on your tail and it’s time to speed up. A computerized voice tells you how far they are and if they’re getting closer. If you don’t keep your speed increased enough, the zombies will get close to you and you’re forced to drop some supplies you’ve collected in order to distract them. And let me tell you, when the sun is setting and you start to hear that radar blip, it doesn’t matter how tired you are, you get your ass in gear. The closer the zombies get, you begin to hear their undead moans and groans over the top of whatever song is playing. It is hellishly scary, but I cannot overemphasize how exhilarating it is.

Sounds weird, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but I was won over the very first run I took with it outside. It’s just exciting to actually feel the need to speed up as you’re running, and the monotony of just listening to songs you’ve heard a zillion times is completely broken up by hearing how the story is progressing. Yesterday’s mission took me outside of the town borders to go rescue a child that had been abandoned in the wilderness. I ran into the child’s father who was trying to protect it, then we had to band together to rescue Molly (the young girl) and escape some zombies who were after us. It was great fun.

On top of this, during the music phases of your run, you collect items like ammo, first aid kits, building supplies, and tons of other stuff. These supplies are used to build up Abel Township, which you’ve got on your phone and which you can also access online (more on that in a second). So it’s like Sim City, but with zombies and mysterious, double-crossing villagers. So cool.

If this isn’t enough to get you to buy the app, aside from it being something that makes the actual act of running fun, it is an intensely thorough exercise app. If you sign up for a free account on their website, you can log your runs from your phone to your online account, and the level of detail about your run is pretty staggering. Get a load of this.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 8.51.14 PMIt tells you exactly what your route was, as well as when each event in the story happened, what you picked up when, what you listened to when, and how often zombies attacked. It even tracks your speed, which is totally awesome. And on top of it, if you enter in your weight and age, it tracks your calorie burn. I’m sure this is not all perfectly accurate, but it’s good enough for me. And it makes the entire exercise worth so much more. I get super excited to see how far I’ve run and try to break my PRs. Here’s also a picture of my Abel Township.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 8.50.12 PMPretty lame right now, but that’s because only Season 2 missions earn you the supplies you need to actually build up your base. And that’s the first of a few flaws. I bought the app right after they released Season 2, or basically the new batch of missions. They updated a few things, and based on user reviews, there seemed to be some dysfunction in upgrading from the Season 1 package to the Season 2 package. A lot of people complained their fully formed Season 1 bases disappeared and they were forced to start over, and the app makers replied that it was all part of the story. Still, I’d be super annoyed if I’d spent time building up my base only to have it be reduced to rubble when new missions were released. There are some slight syncing issues, and I wonder how exactly accurate the GPS is from time to time.

But truly, these are all minor complaints that don’t come close to devaluing this app. If you dread running outside and want some motivation, or you’re a seasoned runner that is looking for a change from your normal running music playlist, I’d recommend this. It’s fairly cheap, and just too much fun to pass up.

-Jon

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Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2011

5. Watch The Throne – The Throne

This one took awhile to sink into my brain. After one or two listens, I think I fluffed it off as basically leftovers from Kanye’s not awesome album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There were hints of vintage Kanye but nothing that kept me entertained enough for repeat visits. Fast forward to last month when I heard the opening number, No Church In The Wild, used in a big action scene in a movie trailer. The song made the movie look incredibly awesome, and I thought it wasn’t half bad. So I gave that and a few other key tracks another listen. Turns out I liked them a lot more. Not sure why, but it just resonated with me a little more after some time. While this is certainly no Late Registration or Graduation (I hate that I even have to mention the Beyonce-featuring Lift Off in the same sentence as, say, the Chris Martin-featuring Homecoming), it is a far cry from 808s And Heartbreaks and the aforementioned MBDTF. I think the lesson here is that any project with Jay-Z will be about 7 times better than the same project with him. Remember that Kanye. For additional thoughts, take a glance through Adam Cooper’s review of the album. He expresses nearly every thought I have about the album, especially my view on Otis, Lift Off, and New Day. The only real thought I would add is that the album cover is atrocious.

Standout tracks: No Church In The Wild, New Day, That’s My Bitch

4.  A Very She & Him Christmas – She & Him

Adding Christmas music to my library is weird. I have most of the Christmas albums I want, and it is so rare that anyone comes out with a Christmas album that isn’t just a rehash of things done before (last innately original Christmas album(s) was Sufjan Steven’s Songs For Christmas). So while this new collection of holiday tunes by Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward isn’t groundbreaking, it sure is great because they make great music. Deschanel’s voice is pretty divisive; people either love it or hate it. I find it very soothing. She has a very antique sound about her; her voice would be well-suited to come out of a crackly AM radio in the 1940s. And the reverb-heavy guitar work of M. Ward suits it perfectly. They make a great pair and this is a really fun and calming set of Christmas tunes.

Standout tracks: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Christmas Day, The Christmas Song

3. Mylo Xyloto – Coldplay

Most of my thoughts are compiled here. After a month of listening to it and mixing it in with other listened-to albums, it stands up well. Coldplay will most likely always be immediately listenable for me. This album is certainly no exception.

 

Standout tracks: Princess Of China, Paradise, Up In Flames

2. Revelator – Tedeschi Trucks Band

Already written about this one too. Long story short: Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks form a band that fuses 17 different musical genres and creates something beautiful and kick-ass at the same time. Tedeschi’s voice is a gift and should be heard by more people. This record should win a Grammy for Best Blues Album, unfortunately a category that probably won’t be broadcast on national TV.

Standout tracks: Until You Remember, Shelter, Midnight In Harlem

1. 21 – Adele

I couldn’t be more happy for Adele. After releasing a heartbreakingly good debut album, she followed it up with this one. And subsequently broke a million sales records. Along with getting nearly universal critical acclaim (which it more than warrants), it has spent multiple weeks out of this year #1 on many different charts, in many different countries. Remember when the record industry freaked out when the Internet gave us Napster, file-sharing, and iTunes? They wouldn’t have to worry if more artists could release music this exceptional. Adele’s voice goes on for days. She somehow strikes this balance of sounding weighed down by the woes and despondency of love lost, yet her voice is unencumbered by it. It soars amidst her melancholy. It’s really powerful music. And it connects, man. You listen to her songs and you feel like you’re there, hanging up the phone after a big fight with the ex you’re still in love with and just feeling bitterness and rage and frustration and love and sadness. It’s insane. She evokes such a range of emotions with her music that it becomes this universal movement. We can only hope that she continues to spurn the traditional route of our culture’s female pop artists and make music that means something. She is a true talent and this album is a perfect reflection of that.

Standout tracks: He Won’t Go, Set Fire To The Rain, Someone Like You

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Top 25 Albums of the 2000s

I was hoping to get this one done closer to the beginning of the year, but this list is so freakin’ long that it took me awhile to write. So here we go.

25. Rockin’ The Suburbs – Ben Folds (2001)

This album became a go-to album during my first year at Iowa. I remember standing at the bus stop right outside of Burge after dinner, waiting for the bus to get back to my room in Mayflower, and listening to The Ascent of Stan over and over. The harmony starting right around minute 3:00 and especially at 3:10 just floored me, and listening to it now still hits me in a crazy way. There was just so much great stuff on here, and I hadn’t heard the piano used in such an effective, pop way before.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Not The Same
2. The Ascent Of Stan
3. Still Fighting It
24. Feed The Animals – Girl Talk (2008)
Watch out boys and girls, this one’s definitely not one you play on a family vacation. Girl Talk is just one dude, a computer, and the most brilliant mind for mash-ups ever. Greg Gillis has taken samples of music from the last 60 years and mashed them all together in a way that makes me want to start riots. This whole album is the most high energy thing I’ve ever heard; it’s basically just straight club gangster rap over samples like The Carpenters, The Band, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, etc. The beat never stops. It just goes, and goes, and goes, and the listener is just happy for the seemingly endless onslaught of pure rhythm and movement that is shot like a heroin syringe right into your musical arm vein. Awesome.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Set It Off (the Bubba Sparxx’s Heat It Up over a sample of Dexys Midnight Runner’s Come On Eileen is pure brilliance)
2. In Step (the Earth, Wind, & Fire sample of September underneath Ludacris rapping in Fergie’s Glamorous sounds SO good here)
3. Give Me A Beat (when Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted starts over Daft Punk’s Face To Face, it makes me want to dance for seven years straight. Unbelievably great.)
23. The Odd Couple – Gnarls Barkley (2008)
Their first album was good, but man this one was so awesome. It is such a bizarre album; I have no idea how exactly to describe it or label it because it has so many different sounds. It’s like soul electro pop cartoon circus music. Whatever you want to call it, it’s awesome. Cee-Lo’s voice over the production of one my favorite producers, DJ Danger Mouse, fits so perfectly.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Charity Case
2. Who’s Gonna Save My Soul
3. A Little Better
22. Back To Black – Amy Winehouse (2006)

Aside from her decadent lifestyle filled with drugs and alcohol abuse, Amy Winehouse belongs in 1968. Or maybe with that stuff too. The reason I loved this album so much is because it has so much Dusty Springfield/Aretha Franklin/etc. soul with just the right pinch of ’00s beat. It’s really just Motown for Generation Y. And while Winehouse has got one hell of a voice, I have to give credit to Mark Ronson for that incredible production. He pulls some favors here, as you can hear the rich sounds of the Daptone Horns playing on most of these tracks. No wonder there is so much Rhythm & Blues on this record.

Top 3 Tracks:
1. He Can Only Hold Her
2. Back To Black
3. Tears Dry On Their Own

21. Room For Squares – John Mayer (2001)

I loved this album when I was in high school. Listening to it now, it’s still good, but certainly a first record. I will say this though, I’m really glad I found this album when I was 16 and not 23. If I heard this record for the first time this last year, I would’ve probably set it down right away and not even gotten to the good stuff. On it’s own, it’s a fine album, but compared to his later work, it’s pretty bland. Far more poppy than anything else. But if nothing else, it’s really a great indication of what a great artist John Mayer is. This was his first album. How does a guy write a song like 3×5 on his first record? Impressive.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. 3×5
2. City Love
3. 83

20. FutureSex/LoveSounds – Justin Timberlake (2006)

This is one of the best second records I’ve ever heard. Justin Timberlake went from the bubble gum pop of ‘NSYNC to pop with a bit more of a hip-hop edge (thank you Neptunes) on Justified, and then holy cow did he upped his game with this one. I didn’t get into this album at first, mainly because another of my very favorite records (spoiler alert, it’s #1 on this list) came out on the same day (my bday coincidentally). But once I really dug into this, it had so much to offer. There are layers upon layers of sexy, soulful, electro-pop on this album. The interludes alone are worth the purchase price.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. LoveStoned/I Think She Knows Interlude
2. Until The End Of Time Feat. The Benjamin Wright Orchestra
3. What Goes Around…/…Comes Around Interlude

19. 19 – Adele (2008)

I don’t want to sound sexist here, but I don’t groove on female vocalists as much as male vocalists. Maybe it’s just cause I can’t sing along. Adele is a grand exception (to the me liking her, not to the me singing along). She has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard. Period. And to hear a voice of this caliber in our age of auto-tune and paint by numbers pop starlets is just astounding. Adele has such control in her voice, it’s remarkable. And on top of being floored by her voice, the music on this record is really great. It’s great modern British pop sounds with lots of homage to late ’60s soul. Plus one of the best Bob Dylan covers ever.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Hometown Glory
2. Tired
3. Right As Rain

18. Alive 2007 – Daft Punk (2007)

I had a hard time not putting this one higher on my list, but in reality, I only truly fell in love with the first half of this record. But holy cow what a first half it is. I think going to a Daft Punk show would be the best way to burn calories, EVER. They put on a hell of a live show which really just equates to one colossal dance party. This show consists of just a mash-up of killer Daft Punk songs. My only beef with this is my normal beef with Daft Punk: they give us too much of a good thing. Some of the later tracks are too long and too monotonous to stay focused and into the music but that is not the case for tracks 3-5, the most glorious continuous seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds in music I think I’ve ever heard. The triumvirate ofTelevision Rules The Nation / Crescendolls, Too Long / Steam Machine, and Around The World / Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger is breathtakingly and relentlessly awesome. Awesome the way my grandparents use the word. The whole time I’m just filled with wonder at how incredibly cool these songs sound. It is just an onslaught of sound and beat and melody and robots and guitars and cheering and beauty. Probably great for working out.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Around The World / Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
2. Television Rules The Nation / Crescendolls
3. Too Long / Steam Machine

17. The Black Album – Jay-Z (2003)

If you ever want to hear an artist at his zenith, listen to this album. One might argue that The Blueprint is Jay’s best work, but I have to stick with The Black Album. The Blueprint was the game changer for Jay-Z, and this one is the one that solidified his status as King of the Rap Game. First off, the production on this thing is just insane. He’s got Kanye, Just Blaze, Timbaland, Eminem, the Neptunes, even Rick Rubin produces on this record. What a line-up. And then on top of some of the sickest beats I have ever heard, you’ve got Jay at the top of his wordplay. This is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball in 1996. His verses are just crazy good. Jay’s got swagger cause he knows this is his “last” album and he’s going out on top. You can hear a bit of sadness on December 4th when he says “Goodbye to the game, all the spoils, the adrenaline rush.” This album was truly Jay’s “grand closing.”
Top 3 Tracks:
1. December 4th
2. Encore
3. 99 Problems

16. Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future – The Bird And The Bee (2009)

I heard the first single from this album back on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (the original, not Part Deux) and it absolutely blew me away. I even blogged about it I think. Yup I did. This woman’s voice is just perfect, so soft and pretty and melodic and overtaking. Her harmonies are gorgeous. The chorus on Diamond Dave has some of the prettiest vocal layering ever. And the music production is so weird, it’s like jazz/pop rooted in electronica. It sounds like an odd mix, but the sound combinations produce such a huge wall of breathtaking music.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. My Love
2. Ray Gun
3. Diamond Dave

15. Try! – John Mayer Trio (2005)

Who knew John Mayer could play the guitar? I did. And so many of his fans did too, but this album, along with the arrival of the Trio was the moment we could hold our heads up high and no longer be reviled for being fans. This is a powerful album from the guy whose record company had released Daughters as his previous single. He breaks out of that mold completely though, introducing his young fans to hits by Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix, as well as showing them what Daughters was originally written as (slow soul tune). And a seven and a half minute slow blues tune too? From the Wonderland guy? John Mayer effectively avoided getting pigeonholed with this album and started to dictate his own career rather than having it dictated to him by his record label. And in the process, you gave us a pretty bad ass record. Well done, John.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. I Got A Woman
2. Wait Until Tomorrow
3. Gravity

14. X&Y – Coldplay (2005)

The Joshua Tree for my generation. Coldplay had had a small hit with Parachutes, gained some notoriety with A Rush of Blood to the Head, but this was the album with hype. Everybody wanted to see where they would go next and they took it to another dimension with this one. A dimension where bands only play arenas. Every song on this album seems like it would fit a giant stadium better than anything else (coincidentally, Coldplay just performed an acoustic version of A Message on the Hope for Haiti TV special months ago, and it was SOOO great). I fell in love with this album. So many immense sounds and instruments and melodies and harmonies and it’s just so great. No one can write emotion that bursts out of your soul into song like Coldplay. And this album proved that.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. What If
2. Fix You
3. The Hardest Part

13. Miles Remixed – The Apple Juice Kid (2008)

This one is maybe the least well known on my list. Okayplayer.com (The Roots website) featured this album as a free download by kind of famous producer The Apple Juice Kid. I had never heard of him but the album cover looked sweet and I had a fairly large Miles Davis collection, which I enjoyed listening to from time to time so I thought I’d give it a try. Glad I did. This is one of the smoothest sounding albums ever. It combines the jazzy melodies of Miles Davis from the ’50s and ’60s with some beautifully smooth hip-hop beats. AJK has just taken bits and pieces from some of Davis’ seminal works and cut them up, rearranged them, and mashed them together in a way that is just so easy on the ears. That’s one reason I liked this so much. I listened to this when I studied, I listened to it playing darts in our duplex garage, it was perfect mood music. There were so many nights that Kevin and Colleen and I would stay up late, throwing darts, drinking a bit and just talking while this was playing in the background. It creates a very tranquil atmosphere in which to hang out. Jazz often turns lots of people off due to its grand or seemingly pompous nature. This is an album that takes jazz and makes it completely listenable.

Top 3 Tracks:
1. SnapMusic
2. Masco
3. ViolinGreen
12. Catching Tales – Jamie Cullum (2005)

This album finds its strength by being very catchy pop, but rooted in something that isn’t ubiquitous in today’s music scene. Jamie Cullum has the jazz piano chops to pull this album off super well. He’s got crazy chords all over the place and sexy progressions and melodies, it’s just so much fun to listen to. His voice can be a bit grating at first listen, but with time, one comes to realize how much control he’s got and how easily he can manipulate his voice. And hoo boy can this guy scat!
Top 3 Tracks:
1. 21st Century Kid
2. My Yard
3. Nothing I Do

11. Parachutes – Coldplay (2000)

It’s remarkable that Parachutes is a debut album. Coldplay writes and sings and plays with depth, emotion, and some real sexy piano music. Chris Martin might not have the most technically perfect voice ever, but he does exactly what he needs to do song after song here. Listening back to it, it’s amazing to hear how much depth these guys wrangle out of their acoustic guitars. One of my favorite records ever.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Trouble
2. We Never Change
3. Sparks

10. Late Registration – Kanye West (2005)

Another great sophomore album. I liked The College Dropout fine enough, but this is when I knew for sure that Kanye could deliver and his debut wasn’t a fluke. There are so many great tracks here, and the music is insanely eclectic. Kanye brought in an outsider not really known for producing hip-hop, Jon Brion. He is known for scoring movie soundtracks such asMagnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (one of my personal favorites), and Synecdoche, New York, among many others. And his influence on this record is key. Kanye is great but pushed the boundaries of his own style with Brion’s help. This is a bizarrely eclectic albums with sounds you’d never expect from a huge hip-hop star. Also, Kanye lays down some amazing samples all over the place here, including, but not limited to, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers. How much more soul can you fit onto one record?
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Gone Feat. Consequence and Cam’Ron
2. Crack Music Feat. The Game
3. Gold Digger Feat. Jamie Foxx
9. Heavier Things – John Mayer (2003)

There is so much growth between this record and Room For Squares. He went from writing pretty run of the mill pop songs to songs with some punch to them. Sure, these are mostly all pop songs again, but with just enough soul hidden inside that they can catch you off guard. One of the strengths of this album is that it matches sonically with what he’s singing about. The feelings evoked by the words of Wheel is exactly the feeling evoked by the music of the song. And many of these songs just hit bullseye in that regard. Clarity, Something’s Missing, Split Screen Sadness. There is emotion that lines up just perfectly between music and lyrics. It is a very satisfying listen.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Clarity
2. Wheel
3. Something’s Missing

8. Discovery – Daft Punk (2001)

I know I’ve written about this album somewhere else. Thinking about it now it might be in an unpublished Top 5 Favorite Artists blog somewhere. Anyway, this album rules. For me, it’s the sum of everything good about Daft Punk’s strengths. In their older stuff, the “techno” sound of their music overtakes everything and they don’t use any restraint. On this album, they take the techno sound and turn it into songs that are listenable. Real songs, not just seven minute club tracks. Songs with different parts, verses, choruses, the occasional bridge here and there. It’s that complex of a thing, but when they start writing real songs in their crazy robot sounding style, it’s so awesome.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Digital Love
2. Something About Us
3. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

7. Fly Or Die – N*E*R*D (2004)

This album is the summer of 2004 for me. There is hardly anything that makes sense on this album musically, considering who N*E*R*D is and the kind of music they made before this. Since some of N*E*R*D’s members make up the hip-hop production team The Neptunes, you’d think this album would be rooted in hip-hop. Not at all. While there are some flavors of hip-hop throughout, this is far more of a crazy pop-rock album than anything else. Am I supposed to dance to these songs or “rock out” as the saying goes? Who knows. You listen and you love it.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. She Wants To Move
2. Maybe
3. Breakout

6. Once – Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova (2007)
Most soundtracks are comprised of songs from which clips were featured in the movie. This one is different; almost all the songs from the soundtrack are performed in their entirety in the movie. Which, now that I think about it, makes the movie more of a musical than anything. Tangent. These songs are breathtaking. The voices are simple; his voice warbles from time to time, but you can tell he means every word he sings. That is truly a rare trait in music today. Her voice is beautiful; so simple and it fits right where it needs to. She doesn’t overpower him and only adds to him. It’s perfect. Their combination is so well-matched. It might be such an emotional album for me because it’s so intimately tied to the movie. When I hear these songs, I think of the relationship between these two characters and that they are really singing these songs to each other. They are singing about hurt, about loss and pain and failure and love and hope. When The Guy really lets his voice loose in Say It To Me Now, it is chilling because you hear what he is feeling. That is where the strength in this album lies. There isn’t anything technically out of this world, it’s mainly just two simple voices over simple instruments. The beauty lies within the feeling behind each voice and how much they can communicate with just their voices. Amazing.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Say It To Me Now
2. Lies
3. Once

5. Graduation – Kanye West (2007)

Highest ranked rap album on my list here. Kanye reached his zenith with this album. He had a great sound on The College Dropout, tweaked it just enough with Late Registration and hit the nail on the head with this album. Just great production here, all the way through. The craziest samples ever. Steely Dan, Daft Punk, Elton John, Curtis Mayfield, and one of my absolute all time favorite samples ever, Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) samples in Good Life. Maybe the hottest sample ever. So clever too. P.Y.T. is such an incredible pop song, and Kanye just took it and slowed it waaaay down, until it’s almost unrecognizable. It took me lots and lots of listens before I realized he was even sampling anybody, and then I had to really focus to catch the sample. So subtle but man the end product is just so hot. And can I talk aboutFlashing Lights for a second? I don’t even think I should. This is definitely on my Top 5 Hip Hop Songs list. It is undeniable how great the beat in that tune is. This album isn’t perfect (Drunk And Hot Girls and Big Brother are two huge blemishes), but where Kanye gets it right, he REALLY gets it right. Beats and rhymes both. He was completely on top of his game here.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Flashing Lights Feat. Dwele
2. Good Life Feat. T-Pain
3. Homecoming Feat. Chris Martin

4. Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends – Coldplay (2008)

It has to be hard to release albums each better than the last. Coldplay has pulled it off for the last decade. Impressive. I had a lot of high hopes for this album and was totally blown away by it. The sounds here are just crazy. The intro song, Life In Technicolor, just starts with the craziest sounding weird piano instrument and opens into a huge rolling sea wave of sound that overtakes you and doesn’t let you come up for air until the end of the album. The band paints so many landscapes with the songs. If I was to make a music video for Cemeteries Of London, I would have the band playing the song amidst a giant Revolutionary War battle. Cannons firing all around them, soldiers bayonetting each other. The song just sounds like a colossal battlefield to me. And how about Viva La Vida? Maybe the most inspirational sounding song I’ve ever heard. Really though, this whole album boasts songs that are just big. They belong in another universe. Just like X&Y, I feel like the only place they could ever truly live is in a giant stadium arena. I can’t imagine Death And All His Friends any other way than the whole band performing it in front of tens of thousands of fans. All the way through, this album just sets my heart on fire.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Lost!
2. Viva La Vida
3. Life In Technicolor

3. Voodoo – D’Angelo (2000)

Remember that sexy music video from about ten years ago of that super buff black guy singing the song with no clothes on? The camera rotated around his whole body, just showing his insanely ripped torso? That was D’Angelo. And that video basically communicates what this album is all about. SEX. But it really is so much more than that too. But the sexy is the most obvious element of this album. I’d never heard music made of silk before this one. Each song is a study in not just how to get a certain feeling behind the music, but how that feeling can be communicated by the musicians. True, the feeling here is sexual/sensual soul, but it’s so well communicated by how the instruments are played. The bass is pushed so far back behind the beat, it’s like a game between the musicians to see how off kilter they can take the music without completely tearing everything apart. Imagine musical notes dancing around each other like they know some sexy business is going down soon. That is this album in a nutshell. Reading over that again, that’s the worst comparison I could come up with but it’s the only way I can communicate how much soul this album has. So much.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Greatdayindamornin’ / Booty
2. One Mo’ Gin
3. Feel Like Makin’ Love

2. Al Green – Lay It Down

Al Green is one of those classic artists that has enough credibility from the last fifty years that basically most anyone you ask would say “Oh yeah, I love Al Green!” when really the only songs they know are Let’s Stay Together, Love And Happiness, and if you’re lucky, Call Me (Come Back Home). I used to be one of those people, at least until two years ago. And then he released this album. After the opening bass riff of the first track, I was sold. Not only on this album, but on Al Green as a musician in general. This was the album that did it though. Produced by ?uestlove and James Poyser, both from The Roots, this album is like the incarnation of the ’70s Al Green soul imputed into the R&B of today. Holy moly is it fun to listen to. Soft guitar, bass lines that are just out of this world, horns that could only have come from James Brown’s band, and all of this lays the setting for that silky falsetto of Al Green. A few great guest spots too, John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, and Corinne Bailey Rae. And the songs are just good songs. Songs about love. No politics here. No messed up relationships. Just simple love songs, of which good ones are very hard to find nowadays.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. Just For Me
2. Lay It Down Feat. Anthony Hamilton
3. What More Do You Want From Me

1. John Mayer – Continuum

It might be a while before Mayer tops this album. This one came at just the right time; he was at just the right spot in his musical timeline to coalesce so many different genres and influences into a modern masterpiece. He touches on blues, jazz, funk, lots of pop, and in general just music that can be enjoyed by such a wide range of humans. And that’s just the music. Lyrically, he reaches into the deepest depths of anything he had done (and even stuff he’s done since this album). There are truly universal themes here, themes that at some point or another, everybody thinks about this stuff. Everybody has issues with seeing their parents age. Everybody has issues with dealing with the good and the bad in life. Everybody deals with the concept of belief in one form or another. Everybody deals with fighting off the world in order to hold onto their confidence. There is genius writing all over this one. And back to the music again, every song can be traced back to its influence if you listen closely enough. This album sent me on a hunt to find what inspired it. Here’s a short list: Curtis Mayfield, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, George Harrison, Steely Dan, Coldplay, and Ray Charles. And that doesn’t even cover all of the songs. It’s hard to find things that aren’t really, really great on this album. And that’s why it’s on the top of this list. It’s so difficult to pull together such a great mix of elements and pull it off so perfectly as Mayer does here. Great album art too.
Top 3 Tracks:
1. I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)
2. Slow Dancing In A Burning Room
3. Stop This Train

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we’re marley and marley….whoooooaaaaa!

it’s november 20th. at work, i’ve taken to putting on christmas movies when i have a chance, and i have been hearing some serious grumbling from customers about it.

“isn’t it a little early to be putting on christmas movies?”

“we haven’t even had thanksgiving!”

etcetera. and it’s annoying to me. you hear this every christmastime, people get so annoyed that businesses start putting out christmas merch really early and people are putting lights up too early and so on. honestly though, it’s always bugged me, and a few weeks ago i finally realized why.

when i was a kid, december would roll around and man would it go slow. like seriously the slowest month ever. it just took so so long to get to christmas. and as a kid i didn’t know how to appreciate the season at all. and nowadays, as i get older, time goes so much faster. my weeks have been flying by so quickly. and all i want to do is hold on to feeling you get during december. it is such a great feeling and comes only once a year, why wouldn’t we try to grasp onto it as long as we could?

i understand some people don’t like the commercialization of the holiday and all that, and i concede that wal-mart did have a gigantic christmas tree up literally on november 1st, but that’s not gonna stop me from putting on the ‘a charlie brown christmas’ album while i study or watching christmas movies at work.

by the way, Top Five Christmas Movies To Play At Work:
5. Elf
4. Jingle All The Way
3. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
2. The Santa Clause
1. Muppet Christmas Carol

home alone, home alone 2, and a charlie brown christmas are all excluded from this list even though they are all very near and dear to my heart. the home alones aren’t on there because everybody everywhere thinks they are great and for me, watching them more than once a year is too much, and a charlie brown christmas is too sweet to put it on and not give it your full attention.

in two days when i open at work, i’ll probably play each of the movies on my list at least once. and thanksgiving is still a week away. bring on the cheer.

-jon

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Top 5 Producers

5. timbaland

timbaland got lucky. he beat out mark ronson for #5, almost solely because of his work with justin timberlake. let me get the things i don’t like about him out of the way. first of all, he basically ushered in one of the worst eras of rap that (in my opinion) has existed since the very early days of rap, late 70s / early 80s. in the mid 90s, timbaland really took off as a producer, producing multiple albums for ginuwine and missy elliot, as well as work with aaliyah, destiny’s child, jay-z, nas, and others. and most of this stuff was just not good. remember that song pony by ginuwine? there was a burping-type noise throughout the whole song for crying out loud. awful. here’s what wikipedia has to say about the “timbaland sound”:

“The track for “Pony,” which Timbaland had created during the Swing Mob days, was characterized by a shifting, syncopated rhythm, similar to samba or drum and bass, which used snare and kick hits on typically non-accented beats in the measure. Stuttering high-hats typical of southern bass music accompanied the basic drum sounds, which were severely gated to create short, strong sounds that were unusual for hip-hop and R&B. This use of the “short snare” is in marked contrast to the “long snare” sound in New Wave music in the 1980s, which featured a heavily amplified, almost white noise snare drum put through reverberation. Accompanying the unusual rhythm were melody lines created by playing odd sound effects (vocal effects and cartoon slide whistles) through a sampling keyboard. Timbaland carried similar production and arrangements throughout the album. On many of the tracks, Timbaland can be heard either rapping or providing ad-libs, similar to what both Missy Elliott and Puff Daddy were doing at the time; Timbaland’s deep voice was usually vocoded to give it an electronic sound.”

i don’t know what most of that means. what i do know is that until recently, i was reluctant to be happy about a timbaland-produced tune because i immediately thought of missy elliot’s get ur freak on. remember that song? so bad. all these weird middle eastern sounds and odd beats and rhythms that didn’t seem smooth to me. i equated timbaland with missy elliot and that whole type of sound. which i didn’t like at all. lately though, he’s been redeeming himself over and over again. i’ll get to that.

another thing i don’t like about timbaland; he’s too hit or miss for me. when he hits, he really hits, but when he misses, his tunes just fall so flat. take most of the stuff off his latest album timbaland presents: shock value. i just went through the track list and counted off the songs i think aren’t bad: 6ish of 17. but those 5 or 6 are just ridiculously good. again, i’ll get to it.

ok now the good. lately, within the last few years, timbaland has been winning me back. thinking about it, it’s almost completely by the work he’s done with justin timberlake. the tracks he produced off justified were great (especially (oh no) what you got and cry me a river), and then he was the executive producer of my 2nd favorite album of 2006, the near-perfect futuresex/lovesound. this album not only realized justin’s full potential as an artist, but also introduced me to timbaland’s genius as a producer. there is so much good stuff on this album. to do a truly complete overview of timbaland would be to do a complete album review of futuresex/lovesounds. i think like the neptunes were so responsible for justified, timbaland was responsible for futuresex/lovesounds. but in lieu of doing an entire album review, i’ll just mention one of the best examples of the producing quality. lovestoned/i think she knows interlude is one of my favorite songs on the album, and tim’s producing really shines throughout, but starting at 3:43 in the tune, his production quality gets sky high. listen closely to how many parts are layered here, and how well they all blend and flow. what i hear:
1. the beat, a mixture of:
a. drum machine
b. justin beatboxing drum noises
2. justin beatboxing record scratching noises
3. the guitar from the previous “let me put my funk on the guitar on this one” part of the song (2:37).
4. the bass, matching the easy to hear melody line.
5. the violins playing the easy to hear melody line.

and all this stuff sounds so good. and as this passage continues, some parts start dropping out, new parts start jumping in, and it all just sounds beautiful. i’ve never heard such gorgeous, subtle beatboxing as justin’s work is here. and then at 4:38, the song just takes on completely new life. and from there on, it just soars higher and higher. this is what pop music should sound like. love it.

lovestoned/i think she knows interlude

so for me, futuresex/lovesounds definitely solidified timbaland as one of the reigning producers right now. but tim didn’t stop there. he released timbaland presents: shock value, an album that illustrates the value of how important a featuring artist can be for a tune. i’ve still got a little beef with this album because it’s SO hit or miss for me. as i wrote earlier, 6 (or so) out of the 17 songs i think don’t suck. most of the rest just kind of blow. legitimately, i haven’t given the rest of the songs much of a listen because the 5 that hit home are totally off the wall. mainly because of: (1) good beats, (2) good featured artists. his beats are of the utmost importance, but you can tell from who guests that they can make or break a tune as well. guests that make this album worth listening to: justin timberlake, one republic, elton john. granted, jt is on one track that sucks (let’s be honest. he’s good, i mean really really good, but missy elliot is on the track, and she is equally as bad, if not more bad than he is good.), the other one he’s on is one of the best dance tracks i’ve heard. one of the best feelings related to music i’ve ever had involved playing this song on at a mediocre dance party immediately turning it into a crazy fun dance party. other than the fact that justin is on this song (and he doesn’t have much of a part anyway), the reason this song is great is this beat. it starts with timbaland saying “alright” and then the hook starting, and when it hits you can really tell this is a super fun song. check it:

release feat. justin timberlake

how can you not at least bob your head to that? it’s just too much fun not to move your body to it. this is the type of thing that timbaland’s good at. good, catchy hooks. this is part of the weird thing about timbaland. he makes incredibly catchy, fun hooks, but there are great songs that he’s in where he does hardly anything. perfect example, the tune ayo technology by 50 cent. just to get it out of the way, i am in no way a fan of 50 cent. the reason this song is so good is because timbaland produced it and justin sings on it. 50’s verses suck. but other than the producing tim has like two lines in the song. this comes back to the whole featured artists thing. other than his producing, i’m not really a huge fan of timbaland. to me, he’s not much of a noteworthy rapper, he doesn’t sing, he doesn’t really do anything when he’s featured on a tune.

tim’s so great cause he shines when he produces. and hearing his evolution as a producer, i think he’s only getting better. and thinking about getting better than tunes like ayo technology and albums like futuresex/lovesounds gets me really excited for where timbaland’s gonna go.

4. just blazejust blaze is a tough entry for me because he has loads and loads of production credits of which i know nothing. he has been working for almost a decade, and i know probably 1% of all the producing he’s done. that being said, i’ll give you the lowdown on that 1%. it’s incredible. just blaze has produced some of the best beats in hip-hop history (killer alliteration), among which are some of my favorites.

here’s the problem with this entry. i know so little about just blaze, and i’ve been playing catch-up the last few days, listening to interviews, watching videos, reading his blog. the part of just blaze that is NOT one of jay-z’s best producers is not a part that i’ve known for a long time. this part of just blaze’s artistry is very new to me, and i haven’t had much of a chance to absorb it, digest it, and interpret it or analyze it. so half of that 1% will be my brand new opinions, and the other half will be thoughts on his work that i do know.

let’s start with the stuff i’m new too. just blaze has been around for a decade or so, producing for loads of artists. i don’t really know much of that music. other stuff i’ve learned; i don’t really like how he interviews. i hate to say this, but he doesn’t seem like he can talk about music very well. like, he doesn’t seem to be the most articulate on the subject of music. but at the same time you can tell he knows what he’s doing, what he’s talking about. and oh man can he put a beat together. check how great this video is.

how awesome is that? he lays it all down just like that. he starts with one little thing, a great horn sample from another track, and within ten minutes has a killer beat that makes me want to drive windows-down. that’s skill. i love that he makes the MPC 4000 his own instrument. and he obviously knows what he’s doing. the way he hits those keys, he plays it with flavor, like a guitarist or pianist or drummer have their own little playing quirks, just blaze has his own way of playing the MPC. love that. i would like to own one of those and learn how to play it. unfortunately, the cheapest one i’ve found is like 700 dollars. that’s too much guacamole for me. birthday present idea?

i really like how he djs. i would love to see him live. this are great:

sort of like the musical equivalent of israel and palestine signing a peace treaty. not that rap and blues don’t mix, way the opposite actually. it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often. this kind of musical juxtapostion is so rare. but that’s what i like about these videos, these two guys aren’t polished in these sessions. it’s a lanky white blues player and a tennis ball green sneakers-wearing hip-hop producer who just decided to try something way different. just blaze throws down some beats, mixing them on the spot, while john mayer throws down some electric guitar over them. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. i like how both musicians seem a bit out of their element, and there are times when it doesn’t flow so smoothly. there are times when jm doesn’t seem to know exactly what to play with the guitar, so he waits a bit. just blaze sometimes scratches when he doesn’t need to. there’s so much experimentation in these sessions. i like the idea of one of music’s best rap producers sampling 80s adult soft rock and one of music’s best electric guitarists playing along. and obviously i love it when they hit on something great, like the hall & oates sample and the curtis mayfield sample.

so great. check them both out. i wish john mayer did more stuff like this, and more hip-hop producers in general did more stuff like this.

so that’s basically most of what i’ve learned about just blaze in the last few days. the other half of the 1% i’m aware of is his work with jay-z. since jay’s the dynasty…roc la familia album, the two have had a great working relationship, out of which has come real hip-hop perfection. there is almost nothing better than jay rhyming over a just blaze beat. i can think of one thing better, but that’s better left for another entry. it’s weird, having done a bit of research for this, i’ve realized that just blaze actually hasn’t done loads of songs i’m absolutely in love with for jay. i think the reason he is so high on this list is that he produced possibly my 3rd or 2nd favorite jay song, and his overall style of beat-making is way awesome. along with one of my other favorite producers, he almost single-handedly ended the ‘timbaland sound’ of the late 90s with his work on jay’s the blueprint. this album is oustanding, and just blaze produces some killer beats on this. namely girls, girls, girls, u don’t know, and song cry. in these songs, he samples old school funk and soul artists, the most notable of which is bobby byrd, long-time james brown sideman. this style of sampling old funk, soul, and r&b tunes for current hip-hop beats changed the rap game for the next few years and thank goodness is still a prominent producing style today, and just blaze was one of the forerunners of this comeback.

what i like about just blaze’s sampling style is his subtlety. a lot of time it’s hard to hear the samples he uses; they aren’t in your face. for december 4th off the black album, i’ve listened to the sample he uses, the chi-lites that’s how long, and it’s near impossible to place it. but that tune is one of my favorite jay tunes. the way the beat hits is just off the wall. the other example of how good just blaze is at what he does:

dear summer

how incredible is that tune? let’s break it down.

1. jay’s rhymes.
2. the ooo ooo melody sung by the girls.
3. the keys playing the melody.
4. a laid back drum beat.
5. THE BASS.
then the break-it-down:
6. some free and easy horns in the background

i just can’t get over how good the bass is in this tune. the way it nails the harmonies, completely playing off the melody of all the other tracks. man so great. and are you kidding me? a total of 6 tracks? i’m sure there’s more but even listening hard, that’s all i could really hear. it’s completely nuts to me how bare this track is and how good it sounds. but that’s just blaze. he’s got a subtle style, and he samples the coolest stuff to make the coolest beats. so good.

3. ?uestlove

before you continue, start this song and then read on while you listen.

?uestlove, pronounced “quest-love”, is a whole different case as far as producers go. i’ve done my best to keep other non-producing influences out of this list (for example, not letting the fact that jay-z is an incredible rapper and rhymes over some of just blaze’s sickest lines influence blaze’s spot on my list, i.e. letting only the production value of an individual producer decide their place on the list), but i can’t really do that with ?uestlove. the biggest reason? honestly, i don’t know enough of the music he’s produced well enough to break it down. the one album that i know thoroughly is d’angelo’s voodoo, and i’m not gonna write much about it because i’m saving that breakdown for another post. so here we go. ?uest is a musical anomaly to me. as far as the hip-hop scene goes, he is ubiquitous among a certain set of artists. he is part of numerous musical collectives, each incredible in their own right. he’s worked with such an incredible variety of artists, inside and outside of hip-hop. he’s the founder of okayplayer, an incredibly awesome online musical community for artists and fans alike. while i wouldn’t call him the founding father of neo-soul, maybe the founding father’s son? better yet, the founding father’s brother. or something like that. doing research for this one entry has led me to nearly 100 (no joke) multiple tabs up in firefox. i’m talking wikipedia pages, interviews, videos, album reviews, etc. and every single one of them is directly related to ?uestlove or can easily be traced back to him. there are so many facets to his musicality and his personality that it’s hard to know where to begin. let’s start with the music.

namely, neo-soul music. he does loads of work outside of this specific genre, but since he basically spearheaded the neo-soul movement in the late ’90s to early ’00s, i’ll start here. he is, along with d’angelo, james poyser, and j dilla, one of the founding members of the soulquarians, one of the best musical collectives of this generation. ?uest, d’angelo, poyser, and j dilla (to boil their talents down to one fundamental faculty each, drummer, singer, keyboardist, DJ, respectively.) started this collective and with the addition of multiple other members, have gone on to produce some of the best, and most critically acclaimed albums, of the last fifteen years. the main bulk of the soulquarian members are pictured: in the back from left to right, talib kweli, mos def, james poyser, erykah badu, ?uestlove, d’angelo, q-tip, and bilal, and then common is kneeling* on the left and j dilla kneeling on the right. such an incredible group of artists. i think this is such a cool concept; loads of extremely talented musicians and artists drawn together by the same musical vision, yet all coming with different aspects of it in mind. how great is that; that this many different artists with distinct tastes and talents can come together and share a united musical goal.

but back to the neo-soul movement. while not completely responsible for it, you can feel ?uestlove’s presence all over the neo-soul movement at the turn of the century. he’s involved in SO much of it. before i go any further, i’ll let ?uestlove actually break down the term “neo-soul”.

Saying “neo-soul” means you don’t have to say “post-’70s smooth jazz over breakbeats” or something equally unwieldy.

perfect. post-’70s smooth jazz over breakbeats. to me that basically defines d’angelo’s brown sugar and voodoo, erykah badu’s baduizm and mama’s gun, among other albums. it’s a gorgeous, tranquil, flowing, musical sound. there is no fluff in neo-soul; it’s not a fence-riding genre. most people either love it or don’t care for it. i feel like as far as music goes, it’s far too in-depth to feel mediocre or indifferent about. it’s so intense. the soulquarians were at the head of this movement, and ?uest was at the head of the soulquarians. this group was so intertwined; when one member released an album, it usually consisted of production, musicianship, beats, guest spots, etc., from the other members. there isn’t a single album released around this time period from one of these artists that doesn’t have another member involved in some capacity. such a cool thing. they were all so connected; for example, the ridiculously great song chicken grease, off voodoo, was originally intended for common’s like water for chocolate and d’angelo finally convinced common to give it to him. wise decision com. eventually, the group expired, as did the movement, when this happened:

Somehow we all forgot that we needed each other. All the sudden it became about ‘This person sounds like me.’ That type of thing. Then the isolation set in.

it’s weird to think about a group, that isn’t officially a group, unofficially disbanding. a lot of the members still work together, so i don’t think the dissolution of the soulquarians was necessarily a negative thing. talib and kweli went on to form black star, ?uestlove and james poyser still produce albums together, and everyone else still guests on everyone else’s albums. it’s just less of a collective unit now than before.

so that’s a bit about the fundamental sound of ?uestlove, and what came as a result of that sound. i’ll come back to it in a bit, but first i have to touch on something else fundamentally important to ?uest’s career.

the roots are a rap group that have been together over fifteen years, with their first studio LP dropping in ’93. ?uestlove is the drummer, and along with the group’s MC, black thought, is the most well-known member of the ensemble. the problem is that i’m just not a very big fan of them. aside from the song the seed (2.0), i haven’t really fallen in love with anything they’ve ever released. it’s great hip-hop, but i think it’s just not melodic enough for me to really get into musically. that being said, they are one of the few rap outfits who record their music live rather than put together a few drum beats in a computer. that’s why they’re noteworthy to me. ?uestlove actually plays the drums you hear on their records; their keyboardist actually plays the keys, etc. i’ve never seen them live but they’re on my list of bands to see. they’ve performed as the backing band for such artists as jay-z (including jay’s unplugged album for mtv, his 10-year anniversary reasonable doubt concert, and in part of his fade to black show.), and basically every band (minus the fugees and jill scott) that performed for dave chappelle’s block party, among others. they’re respected among their musical peers, but i just don’t like their albums all that much. it’s straight forward hip-hop, and it’s not all that fun to listen to, and i think that’s where i get snagged. they write political, socially conscious lyrics, but it just never grabs me. it’s weird that the maybe the biggest part of ?uest’s musical work is the part i like the least.

but this is where ?uestlove gets interesting to me. i’m not a huge fan of his band, so where do i go from there? i could randomly pick a hip-hop artist that i like and ?uest will have some connection to them. here are a few great albums from the soulquarian members that ?uestlove has been directly involved with.

first off, erykah badu’s mama’s gun. i’d call erykah as close to a female d’angelo as you can get. she’s got a very smooth style, and this whole album just oozes soul. laid-back grooves, intelligent, pro-love, pro-peace, anti-racism lyrics, and a voice that at times sounds weird and at other times recalls billie holliday is just a teaser of what this album has to offer. it’s not a windows-down record though. i have a feeling it’s gonna sit with me for a long time, and every now and then i’ll give it another listen and learn to appreciate it in new ways.

secondly, common’s electric circus. if erykah’s the female d’angelo, common could be labeled the hip-hop d’angelo. he goes for the whole nine yards on this album, in some places it works and fewer places it doesn’t. but it’s still great. such a weird, eclectic mix of progressive rap and rock and jazz and soul. although not a perfect album, ?uestlove does his part with some great beats and producing. even though it’s not always perfect, it always sounds good as far as production goes. as much as common is not really a car-thumper type artist, this album is his furthest away from that idea of radio-friendly rap. but i still think it’s cool.

finally, voodoo, by d’angelo. this album is so good it’s on my Top 5 list, so i’m not gonna say too much about it here. comparing other artists to d’angelo is a bit naive because these artists are all phenomenal in their own right and have their own talents, but as far as neo-soul as a genre goes, everything comes back to d’angelo for me, and specifically to this album. it’s just too good to not know. it’s taken me four full years to appreciate it as much as i do now, and that love will only continue to grow as years go by. for its genre, its artist, its sound, its songs, it’s as perfect of an album as i’ve ever heard. and that’s all i can say about it right now. here’s a taste of the genius of d’angelo and ?uest.

chicken grease

the important thing about these albums is that they’re all phenomenal, they all embody the neo-soul genre (especially voodoo), and they’re all connected to ?uest. he laid down the drum tracks for mama’s gun, and while not credited as producer, obviously had a hand in the production along with credited producers james poyser and j dilla. for the other two, ?uest is credited as executive producer or co-producer. he was intimately involved with the creation and development of these two musical ideas. as far as ?uest’s production style, i would rather let the albums speak for themselves than to try and break it down.

moving on a bit. one reason i love the sounds of ?uestlove’s albums is that he comes from such a unique musical background. he has lived music literally his whole life. when he was a kid, his dad was in a doo-wop group and his parents didn’t believe in babysitters so ?uest basically grew up on the road, touring with his family. he started playing the drums at age two and by age seven he was performing on stage. he grew up surrounded by music; the unique musical tastes of both his parents (including pop, soul, funk, etc.) was what he lived and breathed. as far as musicians in today’s music business go, he is one of the most knowledgeable dudes out there. it’s crazy to read interviews and hear him talk about music. with every single interview i read, i learn about a new artist or new album that i really want to get a hold of. example: in an interview with online magazine independent weekly, which by the way is possibly the best interview i’ve read with ?uest, so much in-depth talk of the roots, the soulquarians, music, hip-hop culture, politics, it’s great. but anyway, in this interview ?uest mentions a collection of songs put together by alan lomax. here’s what he says about it.

“Yeah, he built his whole empire, going around down South and sliding a few hundred to prison guards to let him record chain gangs. But the music was amazing. They’re on iTunes right now. The compilation is called The Land Where Blues Began. There’s a song called “Early in the Morning.” Dude who actually wrote it was named Prisoner No. 22. If anything, that song is a precursor to funk music, especially because of the particular way that they had shovels or something—don’t know if they were digging graves or ditches or whatever—but they were banging with a heavy emphasis on the two and the four. The beat was reminiscent of an early version of “We Will Rock You.” You could have easily slid a breakbeat behind that and rocked it today, but it was made in the ’30s.

maybe if i mentioned alan lomax to my grandparents they would know who he was. but that’s about it. but ?uest knows him, and knows the music he’s collected. he knows the plot line of music since the turn of the century. he knows how trends happen and where they go and how they get there, he knows how genres are separated and how they relate, he knows intensely intimate things about the history of music. it’s incredible to read and learn so much just by him talking about things he’s into. and all this gets infused into his own brand of music. i respect that so much; a person that is so unbound by social or cultural norms and restraints that they are wide open to whatever influence and let it show in just the right way through their creativity.

this eclectic knowledge of music makes him one of the most interesting interviewees on the music scene. i learn more about music from one interview with ?uest than i can from multiple interviews from so many of today’s leading pop/hip-hop/rock/whatever stars. and this multifaceted grasp of the last 100 years of music directly contributes to what i think might be one of the coolest parts of his career, record spinning. that’s right, aside from being one of music’s most respected drummers and having many soon-to-be classic albums under his production belt, ?uestlove moonlights as a DJ. i honestly don’t think he could get any cooler after this. there is a night club in philadelphia called fluid which hosts a saturday night dance party called tasty treats. ?uestlove is one of two DJs for this party. it is a dream of mine to go visit philadelphia, if for no other reason than to visit this specific club and this specific party, just to see ?uest rock the turntables. a long time ago, i was reading gq magazine during a slow day at the gas station, and i read one of the coolest interviews ever by ?uest. he talked a lot about his DJ gig at this club, and he said that his DJ set at the club was for meant for the wallflys; the shy people who loved music but didn’t often dance. you could go to this place, the lights were low and there was just music, and loads of people dancing. and that was it. it was a party with the sole purpose of providing a comfortable atmosphere for people who wanted to enjoy some great music but were always a bit shy about it. he also mentioned different records that he liked to play, and it was as far away from the typical club dance music. he talked about experimenting and putting on johnny cash records to see how they would hit, and putting on crazy things like that. sounds awesome.

and check out the tasty treats flyer.how cool is that. pictures of all the different artists they play. take a close look at that flyer. there is such a broad range of artists pictured. i will go to philadelphia one day and dance at this party. this is a video of ?uestlove DJing at some gig a little over a year ago. love how he transitions between james brown and michael jackson. great stuff.

speaking of philadelphia, that leads into another great part of ?uestlove’s career. philadelphia is ?uest’s home town and the city’s musical and cultural heritage is where he got a lot of his own musical upbringing. enter the philadelphia experiment, a progressive/modern jazz album featuring ?uestlove on drums, “avant-garde pianist” uri caine on keys, and jazz bassist christian mcbride, who attended high school with ?uest. they recorded this album one weekend; just three musicians from different musical backgrounds combining their sounds to see what would result. the album is full of really fun, groovy pieces: great example, grover, the tune that opened up this entry. there’s no vocals on the album, just killer jazz. another dimension of ?uestlove’s skill. this guy does it all.

seeing how this is a Top 5 Producers list, i need to get back to ?uest’s production. one project he produced recently was with the musical collective “the yessirs”, consisting of ?uest, james poyser, their engineer Crazy Steve, and others i’m unaware of. let’s backtrack a bit: pharrell williams released his debut solo album in my mind in ’06, and it never really took off. which is weird, cause listening to it now, i actually like it a lot. while not as good to me as the n.e.r.d. album fly or die or some of the neptunes/pharrell’s other work, it still sounds like a fun pharrell record. fastforward to ’07; pharrell got in contact with ?uestlove and james poyser and they decided to redo the album under the moniker “the yessirs”. not a complete redo, just reworking the actual musical tunes themselves. words stay the same, music changes a lot. the finished product was called out of my mind and it was never released officially by a record company but it leaked somehow online and it’s available for download. i’ve listened to the whole thing two or three times; i haven’t had enough time or dug deep enough to really compare the two albums, but here is my initial reaction. pharrell’s original is much more polished, MUCH more glossy. it sounds like a neptunes-produced album of pop music. which i like. the yessirs version is almost like a record full of the demo versions. they seem a lot more stripped-down, with a lot of new instrumentals. but i really do like it. the biggest thing i’ve noticed is that ?uest’s drumming really propels the whole thing forward. and it’s cool to hear how they’ve rethought the tunes a bit. here’s a video of james poyser on keys and adam blackstone (producer for jill scott) on bass re-recording take if off (dim the lights). ?uestlove behind the camera. this really doesn’t have much to do with ?uest at all, but the bass is laid out in such a way that i had to post it. check it out.

how great is that bass. there is so much groove in it. it’s obvious here that ?uestlove surrounds himself with truly great musicians and not just fluff artists. and out of my mind is cool, definitely worth a listen.

i seem to have backed myself in a corner with this ?uestlove entry. doing research for this entry i’ve come to the realization that i really don’t know much of the stuff that ?uestlove himself has explicitly produced. it seems like everything i’ve talked about so far hasn’t actually been produced by ?uestlove himself, except for like two or three things. whatever. i’m way too far to turn back now. so finally, the last album that ?uestlove has produced that i know very little about….al green’s lay it down. granted, the reason i don’t know anything about this is that it hasn’t been released yet. but come may 27th, al and ?uest are coming out with possibly the best soul album to hit human beings since the late ’70s. holler. add in corinne bailey rae, john legend, anthony hamilton, and the dap-king horns, and you’ve got a top-notch work of art. if you click this, scroll down the page, you can stream clips of the duets al green sings with corinne bailey rae and john legend. the corinne track absolutely kills me. if this is any indication of the quality of rest of the album, it will be outstanding. can’t wait to hear what happens when ?uest gets together with a legend.

so there you have it. ?uestlove in a nutshell? not even close. but it’s the best that i can do for now. give me a few years and a few of the actual albums he’s produced, and i’ll be able to write a better entry concentrating solely on his production. but i love ?uest, he’s far too good to leave off this list. for a billion reasons, many of which you now know.

kneeling, or almost falling over, or pretending he is catwoman. you decide.

2. quincy jones

quincy comes in at #2 because of three ingenious works of art: off the wall, thriller, and bad. i guess to be completely accurate this entry should be quincy jones and michael jackson both, seeing as though they co-produced each of these albums. i am just now getting into bad, but off the wall and thriller are two of the best albums ever recorded that i know well. thriller to me is the quintessential definition of perfect pop music. let’s dig a bit deeper into these three albums and what makes them special.

first off, off the wall. while not as strong overall as thriller, Q/MJ are on the right track. while there are a few mediocre tracks and one awful one (she’s out of my life i think has the lowest playcount of any mj tune i have*), there are some ridiculously good stand out tracks. what’s great is that even the mediocre tracks make phenom dance tracks. this whole record is full of catchy hooks and fun melodies. and i’m not sure what it is about this songwriting team, but there are loads of songs off these three albums that have the perfect walking rhythm. rock with you is the best walking track on this record; it’s perfect for a walk at night.

it’s also my favorite track on the album. one of the smoothest, sexiest tunes i’ve ever heard. such a sparse collection of sounds, but just the right instruments are used and to such great effect. everything is in its right place on this song. a simple little guitar riff, sexy spacey synthy sounds, great string arrangements, just the tiniest bit of horns, bass that doesn’t take over but supports the whole tune from underneath everything else, and the beat? it’s weird, it’s so subtle it’s like you forget there’s even a beat driving this song. phenomenal production. perfect for a packed dance floor and some black lights. plus, what’s better than a dance track about dancing? get a load of this video too. look at that ridiculous outfit young michael is wearing. whatever, still a great song.

so the sparsity really makes the standout tracks on this album. but really the whole thing is worth two, or three, or ten listens. the best thing is that this is only the first of the trio of Q/MJ collabs. three years later, they released thriller, generally considered the best selling album of all time. some estimates are around the 100 million mark. think about that for a second. 100 million albums sold. unbelievable. but for good reason; there isn’t a dull moment on this entire record. the only thing that might take the momentum down a smidge is the girl is mine, but even that track is still a really great one. everything else is as perfect as pop music gets. danceable, catchy, exciting songs.

prime example: p.y.t. (pretty young thing). first off, the title is an acronym; how could this song go wrong? all i really have to say about this track is this: BASS LINE. i’ve never been able to figure out how to play guitar with this track because there aren’t really chords to hear and pick out, just an outrageous bass line and awesome sounds floating in and around and on top of the bass. excellent use of robot voice in the break-it-down too. but what a cool tune, driven completely by bass that again, like rock with you, is so subtle you don’t even realize that it’s really the bass you’re bobbing your head to. obviously the rest of the arrangement is outstanding; the rhythm guitar all throughout, synth chords during the verses, the killer synth riffs during the chorus, the high energy beat following the bass line around the song, and the sweet djembe percussion complementing the drums. there are few songs in the world that better fit with the word “pop” than this one. so great.

p.y.t. (pretty young thing)

is it even worth talking about the rest of thriller? i could write the same sentence for every song: “this tune is another outrageously good tune called ____, produced by quincy and mike.” the whole album is great. i’ll save more tune breakdowns for a full album review or something.

finally, we end this brief Q/MJ overview with bad. this was the last album that the two collaborated on, which i guess is a good thing. who knows what would’ve come out of more recording sessions between the two superproducers, but because you can just barely start to see the first signs of mike getting further and further away from thriller-quality work, it’s best that this is where they split. stop while you’re ahead. i’m not very well acquainted with this record, i only just heard the whole thing in its entirety in the last month, so i’m getting to know it as i’m writing this. first off, it doesn’t top thriller; that’s near impossible. however, it does pick up the pieces after thriller completely blew the roof off where pop music was in ’82, and does a decent job at keeping up with thriller. there is 1 bad song, 1 horrible ballad, and all the rest of the songs are all real killers or way close. there have been a couple songs that have really caught my ear, namely smooth criminal. this song is ridiculous. i can barely hear a chord progression that makes any sense whatsoever, but i know one has to be there cause the song rules. plus the break-it-down? hawt. there is some outrageous synth work in the break-it-down. and it’s possibly the only MJ song that i can sing somewhat in my own vocal range, so that’s another reason i like it. check it out. break-it-down starts at 2:40 and then brings that hot fire at 2:48. so awesome.

can’t get enough of that break-it-down. this album has some of the most high energy moments out of all three of these albums. ironically enough, as i was writing that last sentence, the way you make me feel came on. terrible track, i have no idea how it made it onto the album. but songs like smooth criminal and bad are bursting with energy, and leave me alone features some ridiculously good harmonizing chorus vocals, and even dirty diana, although its tempo is way slow, boasts some furious guitar. this album is awesome.

so there we have it. #2 goes to quincy jones/michael jackson. there’s just something really special about these albums. this music has an energy unlike anything that i’ve never heard captured on tape. it’s so vibrant, so lively, so fun. there’s a zest in this music that’s almost palpable. and it’s so smooth, so sleek, so glossy. perfectly-produced pop music. it’s just too good.

* false. i believe the way you make me feel now holds that title.

1. kanye westhere we are. the louis vuitton don coming in at #1. kanye’s my #1 just because of his producing style and the wealth of quality music he’s produced. i’m gonna do my best to keep his rapping career separated from his producing career here, cause that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

kanye comes in at #1 because of his whole production style. he has one of the most completely unique approaches to music production and beat making in our music culture. it always hits me right where it needs to. it’s so complex that i can’t even break it down as well as i’d like, but the biggest part of it involves sampling. and sampling like no one else does. kanye finds the coolest old artists and the coolest old songs to sample, and rethinks them in such a way that it keeps the soul of the original and makes it fresh and relevant and awesome. here are just a few examples:

heart of the city (ain’t no love) the best song off jay-z’s classic album the blueprint. kanye takes a great bobby “blue” bland track and reworks it into possibly the best jay tune in existence. he speeds the sample up and changes the key and ends up with about the most soulful jay-z track there is. incredible. so this and the other kanye’s produced tracks off the blueprint were kind of the world’s first real exposure to the “kanye sound”, i.e. his use of samples. from then on, kanye released hit single after hit single. he also honed this sampling sound on his debut album the college dropout. this was such a new sound in rap, an eclectic mix of pop and hip-hop with the most inventive use of samples rap had heard in a long time. just a few artists kanye samples on this album: aretha franklin, marvin gaye, luther vandross, bette midler….what? yeah, bette midler. how crazy is that. and he pulls it off left and right. this album is too good.

with his sophomore release late registration, kanye only pushed his sound and his sampling further. this album was coproduced by kanye and jon brion (who composed such movie soundtracks as eternal sunshine of the spotless mind and punch-drunk love, among many others.), and it’s chock full of outrageous samples that kanye uses in the best possible way. here are just a few artists he samples: shirley bassey, otis redding, curtis mayfield, ray charles, among others. and he added a killer element to his sound, synth. there is so much great synth on this album; it’s really the driving element to this new phase of kanye’s sound.

so kanye added a very cool electronic aspect to his sound with late reg, and then dropped graduation two years later. i’m not really sure how to classify this album, if there even is a classification that would really fit it. i guess it’s a good mix between his first two albums, lots of elements of both albums are present here. and the samples are off the wall here too: daft punk, steely dan, michael jackson, elton john, etc. awesome. here is one of the greatest uses of one of the greatest songs of all time, p.y.t.:

ok you might be wondering how this is a sample? go back and listen to both one more time, paying extremely close attention to the chorus of p.y.t. and the main riff of good life. the entire foundation of good life is the chorus of p.y.t., just slowed waaaaaaay down. i remember the first time i realized that, i flipped out. kanye’s a genius. he takes one an amazing song and makes another amazing song. so great.

aside from his own work and his work with jay-z, ‘ye’s also produced loads of hit singles and outstanding albums, for everyone from beyonce to rhymefest to common to john legend to alicia keys to mariah carey. loads of stuff. and so much of it is good. he’s got the most addictive sound: so often loud, full, energetic, happy. such good summer music. his tunes are just the best hip-hop tunes i’ve ever heard, they hit me in just the right place, and they make me feel so full of life. he’s great; if you don’t know him, go buy his albums. and here’s one of the main reasons he’s my #1:

flashing lights

incredible. the synth…it’s all about the synth. possibly my favorite hip-hop tune of all time. it’s in the running anyway.

so that’s my list. congrats to kanye. but honestly, i would say the Top 3 are interchangeable. it all depends on what song is shooting through the old earbuds on what day. as everyone knows, different moods call for different songs, and that almost guarantees that no Top 5 list is completely set in stone. for me, the last month or two, i would’ve put kanye at 3, ?uest at 2, and quincy and mike at #1. the only reason kanye made it to #1 is cause i remember what it’s like when i’m in a kanye phase, and it’s just the best. it feels like summer. and speaking of, i’ve got a good feeling kanye, quincy, and ?uest’s new al green album will be in constant rotation in my car this summer. can’t wait.

-jon

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