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Sweeping Declarations: The Aftermath or 2013 In Music: A Review

It is with an overwhelmingly heavy heart that I must report: my Sweeping Declaration made in March of 2013 did not come true.

Let’s rewind and take a look back at it:

This Year Will Be The Best Year Of Music That I Live To See.

On paper, you’d think I was dead on. The number of good artists to release new music this year? Unparalleled. In fact, higher than any year I’ve been alive and conscious of popular music. That’s why I thought my Declaration was nearly fool-proof. Unfortunately, just because an artist I like releases a new album doesn’t mean it’s going to be a 5-star affair. Let’s first take a look at the albums I listened to this last year:

  • Night Beds – Country Sleep
  • Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God
  • Madeleine Peyroux – The Blue Room
  • Eric Clapton – Old Sock
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 1
  • Josh Rouse – The Happiness Waltz
  • The Strokes – Comedown Machine
  • Fitz & The Tantrums – More Than Just A Dream
  • She & Him – Volume 3
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Jamie Cullum – Momentum
  • Booker T. Jones – Sound The Alarm
  • Jay Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail
  • Sara Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest
  • Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Lickity Split
  • Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go
  • Buddy Guy – Rhythm & Blues
  • The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
  • Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Derek Webb – I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
  • Jack Johnson – From Here To Now To You
  • Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
  • Haim – Days Are Gone
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 2
  • Amos Lee – Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song
  • Teitur – Story Music
  • Brett Dennen – Smoke And Mirrors
  • Arcade Fire – Reflektor

If you look at the left side of that list, it’s pretty impressive to think this many awesome artists all released new music. It’s what they released that rendered my Sweeping Declaration false. Let me explain with more lists:

Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2013:

  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 1
  • Haim – Days Are Gone
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Amos Lee – Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song

Top 5 Album Let-Downs of 2013:

  • Jamie Cullum – Momentum
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 2
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind

These lists are weird one after another, especially because two albums appear on each. But this is the essence of what made this a weird year of music for me. Some of my favorite artists released music, really good music, but not stunning music. Let’s look at a few examples.

JM’s Paradise Valley is really a great album. Smooth sounds, a nice country/western vibe, nothing too difficult or inaccessible. Just nice tunes about love and summertime. But honestly, this felt like gussied-up outtakes from the Born And Raised sessions. Born And Raised came out hardly a year ago, and it was a perfect example of how JM has managed to continually evolve musically for over 10 years now. But with Paradise Valley (and again, I really loved the album), there wasn’t that same sense of musical growth that JM’s managed to pull off with every single new studio album he’s released. As a consumer, it left me happy we had new JM, but a bit hollow.

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is maybe the most disappointing, as they had the biggest build-up and their album was plagued by the same sorts of issues they’ve had in the past. However, it’s still an awesome album. Nobody can make a electronic song like Daft Punk. With the help of Nile Rodgers, they created some of my favorite tunes of the year. The album was just so 50/50 to me. Each song was either a solid gold hit or something I skipped (with the exception of the 3:21-4:11 segment in the middle of “Touch”).

And then Justin Timberlake wowed us all with two album releases. I’ve read that his return to music was due to a contractual obligation, and if that’s the reason for two albums, then I get it. But musically? Part 2 was the most unnecessary album of the year. Especially because of how powerful Part 1 was. Part 1 was a sonic safari through the minds of JT and Timbaland, and it was better than 100% of today’s pop music. Part 2 was overkill, with a few good songs but nearly all of them too long. Did we really need the last track and hidden track? The former was like a leftover from the *NSYNC days and the latter was the fluffiest bit of mush he’s made since the Justified ballads. Again, had JT just stuck with Part 1 and called it The 20/20 Experience, it would’ve been perfect. Part 2 was just excessive.

But truly, even if all of these artists had released their best albums all in the same year, there is still one event that needed to have occurred for me to fully qualify my Sweeping Declaration as true. Whatever year D’Angelo decides to release his third album, the follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo, will be the best year of music I’ll most likely ever live to see.

Rumors have been flying about this album for nearly a decade, but since January of 2012, the rumors have turned into something more than just industry ephemera. D started playing shows again, both in Europe and the States, Questlove began promising the album was close to finished, and Russell Elevado (sound engineer on Voodoo and the follow-up) started tweeted that the album was completely mastered and ready to be released. He’s even mentioned spring/summer of 2014 as a release date.

Frankly, I’ll believe it when I’m holding the album in my hands. 2013 was pretty good as far as music goes, but without a doubt, the year of D’s return will be better.

Here’s my Best of 2013 Playlist:

  1. “Ramona” – Night Beds
  2. “Wild Child” – Brett Dennen
  3. “Waitin’ On The Day” – John Mayer
  4. “Out Of My League” – Fitz & The Tantrums
  5. “Back Seat Lover” – Mayer Hawthorne
  6. “Let The Groove Get In” – Justin Timberlake
  7. “Somewhere In America” – Jay Z
  8. “Fragments Of Time” – Daft Punk
  9. “Don’t Save Me” – Haim
  10. “Our Love” – Josh Rouse
  11. “Reflektor” – Arcade Fire
  12. “Indonesia” – Amos Lee
  13. “Take Me Out (Of Myself)” – Jamie Cullum
  14. “Manhattan” – Sara Bareilles
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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 5

1. “Alright” – D’Angelo, Brown Sugar

My first thought when listening to this is that I almost heard this live a month ago…but didn’t. This is one of the songs off of Brown Sugar D’ had been playing live in the last few months, and we almost certainly would’ve heard it had he not cancelled his Chicago House of Blues show. Anyway.

This is one of the Brown Sugar songs I like most. Brown Sugar is a great album, but I too often fall into the trap of listening to it with the ears of what could’ve been. Had Questlove and D’ been collaborating earlier than they started and worked on this album together, could it have gone from pretty awesome album to stratospheric album? Most likely. So when I listen now I subconsciously look for things that could be improved upon, which is a listening mistake. There is a lot in this song to enjoy. I believe it’s one of the fastest-paced songs on the album (which actually isn’t saying a lot), and the fantastic bass work is what drives the song along for me. I usually love it when an exploratory bass line sits on top of a slow beat (a la “Lay It Down” by Al Green, anything off of D’Angelo’s Voodoo), so I can really dig my teeth into what’s happening. But in this tune, the pace is faster and the bass certainly keeps up well. It starts very controlled, adhering strongly to that main bass hook, and by the end of the tune it’s going all over the place.

2. “First Love” – Adele, 19

The lullaby song. This is one of those Adele tunes that can be overlooked due to the simplicity of the instrumentation. It sounds like it was recorded on a xylophone in a nursery. There’s nothing musically complex here. This is not a catchy song, but the oddness of the music draws out unique emotions from the pleading words of Adele. It’s a weird pairing of music that sounds like a lullaby and lyrics about tiring of your first love. It’s a sad mix because as a listener, the music makes me connect the singer with youth, and most likely immaturity. This is one of those relationships that’s sad when it dies because it will inevitably be one neither person truly ever forgets. It’s a tragic crime of the universe that we often fall in love before we know how to handle it and most often those loves leave us because of our immaturity or inexperience or inability to handle the emotion and responsibility of love. The fact that the singer is pleading for forgiveness for wanting to leave over what is essentially a nursery rhyme tune has a lingering, depressing effect.

3. “Don’t Stop The Music” – Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit

Nobody reimagines tunes like Jamie Cullum. He can take an old standard or a modern pop/rock song and his piano is his transmogrifier, injecting the DNA of the song being covered into this completely new creation. He’s covered the widest range of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Radiohead to Rihanna to Cole Porter to Jeff Buckley to Jimi Hendrix. And all to fantastic effect. This particular cover of the awesome Rihanna song was the first song I heard off of Cullum’s 2010 album The Pursuit and it was the first music I’d heard of his in a while. Needless to say, it completely blew me away. Rihanna’s song is suitable to be danced to while you’re clubbin’ with your girls. Cullum plays it like an unknown trio in a smokey jazz club in NYC. There isn’t anything pounding in his cover. It’s silky smooth, with brushes on the drums and an upright bass playing off his beautiful jazz piano licks. If you don’t know Jamie Cullum, look him up. He’s like Michael Buble, except not a vanilla-bland a-hole. He’s got the voice that delivers this old-school standard style so well, very much like Michael Buble, but his piano playing chops are other-worldly. His solo in this song is so beautifully understated and cements his genre-bending vision of this cover. It’s a testament to his talent that he takes this awesome dance track and morphed it into something completely different. If you’re not careful, you could easily listen to it and not realize it’s originally a Rihanna song. There are so few covers that truly elicit a different sound, a different genre or feeling from the original, and it’s such a delight to hear when it happens. It’s maybe my favorite song on this whole record, and absolutely the song that sold me 100% on Jamie Cullum.

4. “Lovers In Japan” – Coldplay, Unreleased

If you’re a Coldplay fan, that link is not the version you’re thinking of. I somehow got my hands on a very stripped down version of the tune, mainly acoustic with some percussion, and even in a different key. This version is very tempered, and I like that a lot because Coldplay is known for anthems. It’s almost like the version of this tune had they written during the recording of Parachutes. It’s nice to hear how they sound when it’s fewer instruments, or at least fewer grand, supernova-esque instruments. Chris Martin’s vocals are less energetic, which coaxes a different emotion out of this song, which is really cool to hear.

5. “Reminder” – Jay Z, The Blueprint 3

Not my favorite off of BP3, and I think it ended up in my Top 1000 mainly because the beat used to be a great pace for me to run with (it’s since become a little bit too slow to serve that purpose anymore). For me, the biggest issue with Jay Z is that he is the king. He won the game. He didn’t die young, he went from a poor childhood to selling drugs to survive to selling millions of albums and being one of the very biggest names in the rap game. He’s a billionaire. Hip hop is so very often fueled by lyrics about The Chase or The Game or The Struggle or The _____. Jay Z has beaten all of that. He is married and has a baby daughter. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” One of my favorite lines, but it illustrates why he almost certainly won’t reach the zenith that he’s already reached. Critically, he’ll never live up to the fantastic output earlier in his career. Reasonable DoubtThe BlueprintThe Black Album (among his others) are all recognized as seminal hip hop albums. So back to my original thought, “Reminder” is a song where he’s calling out critics who don’t think he’s hot anymore and giving them a reminder that he’s still the king. If I’m honest with myself, while I love his recent albums much more than I’ve loved other current hip hop (MCHG >>> Yeezus), a lot of it is grounded in this sort of defense of his royalty status, his place as king. Which can only really sustain a listener for so long.

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The Yoda of D’Angelo

I had to uncheck a box off of my life to-do list this week. D’Angelo cancelled his concert at the Chicago House of Blues due to medical emergency. Very disappointed, but not so much in D’. The dude’s cancelled like five shows this week alone, so I think the medical thing is legit. I had been undergoing a sort of music therapy “training” for this concert for the last month, and through the course of listening to nearly non-stop R&B/Soul music from the last 40 years, I had unconsciously gotten myself insanely amped up for this show.

Truly though, I’m bummed not to see him but I harbor no ill will, because D’Angelo is unquestionably a musical genius, and my music listening regimen for the last month has brought that to light for me in a new way. I had no idea the breadth of his musical knowledge and influences, or how much he’s paid tribute to his idols (or, collectively, “Yoda”, as he and Questlove called them during the recording of Voodoo, couldn’t be happier that they used a Star Wars reference) in live shows and on his albums. I had no clue his albums used the very niche samples it did, and it was eye-opening to go back and listen to all the puzzle pieces that eventually informed Voodoo so heavily. So let’s take a quick tour through the landscape of D’Angelo’s Yoda.

First though, here the albums/concerts I’m using for reference:

  • Brown Sugar (1995)
  • Live At The Jazz Cafe (1995) – D’s only official live concert release
  • Voodoo (2000)
  • Voodoo Outtakes (2000) – This is a random collection of tunes. If I find a D’Angelo song that isn’t on any of these other releases, I put it here. It’s a great catch-all collection.
  • Live At Le Zenith (2012) – This is a bootleg recording from the first set of shows D’ had played in nearly a decade. They were all in Europe, this venue is in Paris.
  • Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo (2012) – Another bootleg recording of D’Angelo’s first live show in the United States in 10+ years. Band performers included Questlove, Pino Palladino, James Poyser, Kirk Douglas, Frank Knuckles, Jesse Johnson, Eric Leeds, and Kendra Foster.
  • Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl (2013) – Another bootleg recording of a show with just Questlove on drums and D’ on keys held earlier this year.
  • Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave. (2013) – Much like the first Brothers In Arms show but held in Prince’s home venue in Minneapolis, MN.

Sidebar: There are many more groups that could be included on this list as influences. I’m sticking with the five that crop up most in D’s studio and live work.

Ohio Players:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): “Love Rollercoaster” is the most famous, but they had some other singles that hit charts in the ’70s
  • Timeline: Major output of albums was in the ’70s, but they continued to release music into the ’80s as well.
  • Influence: This is easy to spot in D’Angelo’s canon. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Players Ballin’ (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing)” is sampled heavily on the Voodoo opener “Playa Playa”
    • “Heaven Must Be Like This” (Live At The Jazz Cafe, 1995)
    • “Pride And Vanity” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “Our Love Has Died” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Sweet Sticky Thing” (unknown)
  • Recommended albums: My favorite hands down is Honey, but Pleasure and Fire are also good starter albums. The Roots actually just covered “What The Hell” off of Fire for Common’s walk-on song when he was a guest on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last week. You can find the clip online, and it is awesome.

Sly & The Family Stone:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): Loads of them. “Dance To The Music,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Everyday People,” too many more to name.
  • Timeline: Really picked up steam in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Output fell off greatly after that, as Sly Stone went through major addiction problems and the band disintegrated.
  • Influence: This is a little bit tougher to find, as D’ hasn’t straight up covered as many songs of Sly’s. It’s more abstract, like you can feel Sly’s presence in D’s music. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Let Me Have It All” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Babies Makin’ Babies” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
  • Recommended albums: Dance To The Music is great fun. Stand! is essentially hit after hit. And I feel obligated to put There’s A Riot Goin’ On on this list, even though I don’t know it well. Questlove has stated countless times that this is one of the most influential records ever, a complete game-changer in pop music. I believe him.

Funkadelic:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): no huge individual hits (as far as I could tell), although “One Nation Under A Groove” did reach #1 on the US R&B charts in 1978.
  • Timeline: Heavy in the ’70s. George Clinton was the ringmaster of both Funkadelic and Parliament and a contemporary of Sly Stone’s.
  • Influence: This is another easy one. D’ and Quest cite these guys time and time again as hugely influential in their childhood and musical lives. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Cosmic Slop” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “Funky Dollar Bill” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “Hit It And Quit It” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012)
    • “If You Got Funk, You Got Style” (Voodoo outtakes)
    • After the release of Voodoo, Quest said in more than one interview that D’s new musical direction was heavily guitar-oriented, towards more Hendrix-psychedelic rock. He specifically quoted D’ as saying he wanted to learn Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute guitar solo from the title track of Funkadelic’s magnum opus Maggot Brain.
  • Recommended albums: I’m less versed on their discography than others, but I’d go with Maggot Brain, Cosmic Slop, and finally Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow. Easily one of the greatest album titles of all time.

J Dilla:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): Dilla’s work is not widely known, but he has done production for loads of hip hop artists and was a founding membor of the hip hop group Slum Village.
  • Timeline: Heavy in the ’90s and ’00s. He tragically died in 2006 from TTP.
  • Influence: Dilla’s influence is more subtle than the others. D’Angelo discovered Dilla’s music very early in the planning/recording process for Voodoo and when Q-Tip first introduced Dilla’s music to Questlove, Quest freaked out. Dilla’s off-kilter beat-programming style is the pulse of Voodoo. Questlove described it as something like a drunk 4-year-old on the drums. Dilla would manually program a beat for many more bars than was customary with drum machines, so rather than getting atomic clock-like perfection, the timing was just slightly off or inconsistent, and it allowed the other instruments to play off of that inconsistency and play behind the beat. Lenny Kravitz is quoted as hearing a discrepancy in the drum pattern and not wanting to play guitar on a track they were doing for Voodoo. This off-kilter style is a foundational element of Voodoo. Direct covers/samples include:
    • “Fantastic” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013)
  • Recommended albums: I don’t know J Dilla that well, but I’d recommend Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 and Dilla’s Donuts, along with The Root’s Dilla tribute album, Dilla Joints.

Prince:

  • Genre: many
  • Hit(s): You know them. “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” and many more.
  • Timeline: Best stuff in the ’80s, his first album was very late ’70s and he is still making music today.
  • Influence: Prince’s music brought D’Angelo and Questlove together, so in my mind he’s the reason we have Voodoo. Questlove tells the story of playing a show that was attended by D’Angelo when The Roots were on tour opening for The Fugees. Quest had previously written D’Angelo off as another plain vanilla R&B singer before Brown Sugar came out and declined the opportunity to work on that album, then realized what a huge mistake he had made and was trying to get back into D’s good graces. During a drum solo in the show, Quest went off the musical script The Roots were used to following and started playing the drums from “4” off the Madhouse album 8. D’Angelo states he felt like he and Quest were the only ones in the room, that nobody else knew that Quest was referencing a Madhouse tune, let alone that he was referencing anything at all. That one drum beat connected these two musicians who hadn’t previously met. And we all owe Prince a big thanks. Prince’s influence is also all over Voodoo and D’s live stuff, as you can see:
    • “New Position” (Brothers In Arms: Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, 2013)
    • “I Wonder U” (Voodoo, 2000) – This is also one of the rare samples on Voodoo, drum track sampled on the album closer “Africa”
    • “My Summertime Thang” (Superjam: Live At Bonnaroo, 2012) – actually a song by The Time, one of Prince’s side projects
    • “She’s Always In My Hair” (Scream 2 OST, 1998)
    • “Pop Life” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013)
    • “Mutiny” (Brothers In Arms: Live At First Ave., 2013) – a song by The Family, another one of Prince’s side projects
    • “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (Voodoo, 2000) – So this isn’t an actual cover, but it was written by D’ and Raphael Saadiq as a direct homage to the work of Prince.
  • Recommended albums: I’m not a colossal Prince fan, but I have a deep appreciation for what he’s done. I’d start with Around The World In A Day, then go to Purple Rain, then Sign O’ The Times.

Again, D’Angelo’s influences certainly do not stop with these five. But these have seemed to be the most common names that keep popping up in all my listening and research. One of the things I find most interesting about all five is that they are all nearly impossible to pin them down to a specific genre. J Dilla might be the most easily boxable, but he very much transcends the hip hop genre. Each of these five artists touched on so many genres like funk and soul and R&B and pop and rock that it doesn’t make sense to categorize any of them with a one word description. D’Angelo has managed to perfectly carry on that torch of casting off genre limits.

I’ve spent the last month heavily listening to these artists, but I’ve also especially spent my time in a playlist entitled “D’Inspirations.” It is the original version of (nearly) every song D has covered or sampled in concert or in the studio.

D’Inspirations (“Song Title” – Artist, Album Title)

  • “I’m Glad You’re Mine” – Al Green, I’m Still In Love With You
  • “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” – The Beatles, Abbey Road
  • “Use Me” – Bill Withers, Still Bill
  • “Woman’s Gotta Have It” – Bobby Womack, Understanding
  • “Hollywood Squares” – Bootsy Collins, Bootsy? Player Of The Year
  • “Mother’s Son” – Curtis Mayfield, Got To Find A Way
  • “Give Me Your Love” – Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
  • “Space Oddity” – David Bowie, David Bowie
  • “Can’t Hide Love” – Earth, Wind & Fire, Gratitude
  • “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” – Eddie Kendricks, People…Hold On
  • “Mutiny” – The Family, The Family
  • “Cosmic Slop” – Funkadelic, Cosmic Slop
  • “Funky Dollar Bill” – Funkadelic, Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow
  • “Hit It And Quit It” – Funkadelic, Maggot Brain
  • “Ex-Girl To The Next Girl” – Gang Starr, Daily Operation
  • “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland
  • “What Is And What Should Never Be” – Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
  • “Your Precious Love” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, United
  • “Sweet Sticky Thing” – Ohio Players, Honey
  • “Players Ballin’ (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing)” – Ohio Players, Pain
  • “Pride And Vanity” – Ohio Players, Pleasure
  • “Our Love Has Died” – Ohio Players, Pleasure
  • “Heaven Must Be Like This” – Ohio Players, Skin Tight
  • “Do That Stuff” – Parliament, The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein
  • “I’ve Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body)” – Parliament, The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein
  • “I Wonder U” – Prince, Parade
  • “Pop Life” – Prince & The Revolution, Around The World In A Day
  • “Feel Like Makin’ Love” – Roberta Flack, Feel Like Makin’ Love
  • “Tell Me If You Still Care” – The S.O.S. Band, On The Rise
  • “Untitled / Fantastic” – Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2
  • “Let Me Have It All” – Sly & The Family Stone, Fresh
  • “Babies Makin’ Babies” – Sly & The Family Stone, Fresh
  • “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” – Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
  • “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” – Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
  • “Cruisin'” – Smokey Robinson, Where There’s Smoke…
  • “My Summertime Thang” – The Time, Pandemonium

There are a few songs that I know were sampled on Voodoo that I don’t have so they didn’t fall into this list. I know of at least three, and I can pretty much guarantee that D’ has done more Yoda tributes that haven’t been released. In a 2007 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Russell Elevado (Voodoo‘s sound engineer) stated they ended up recording probably around 40-50 cover songs during studio time. It would be truly fascinating to get to listen to those and I hope one day they get released.

Here’s to D’ getting well soon. A sincere thank you to both the Brothers In Arms for introducing me to so much insanely good music and creating the best album I’ve ever heard. I can’t express how much I’m looking forward to Voodoo‘s follow-up and what new Yodas I’ll discover through it.

-Jon

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SWEEPING DECLARATION…

…This Year Will Be The Best Year Of Music That I Live To See.

It’s a ballsy statement to make, mainly because it’s contingent on a few artists releasing their newest albums this year, when none of them have made firm commitments. However, all signs are pointing to good things.

First, let’s look at the second tier of good music coming out, because obviously the first tier is the most exciting. As of the end of February, only one album has been released that I’m excited to listen to, Jim James’ Regions of Light and Sound of God. Jim James is the frontman for My Morning Jacket, one of those bands who I never think to listen to, and then every time I do I kick myself for not listening more often. They are awesome. James’ solo debut has gotten pretty solid reviews, and especially from Questlove, upon whom I bestow the highest musical regard. If an album gets Questlove’s endorsement, it becomes a must-have for me. After Jim James’ performance with The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Questlove tweeted, “most beautiful song i ever played on @latenightjimmy. this will be the new say anything ‘in your eyes’ @jimjames” Good enough for me.

The next set of second tiers are all albums with set release dates in the next six months. Keep in mind, this is only half the year.

  • Jimi Hendrix (March 5th)
  • Eric Clapton (March 12th)
  • Josh Rouse (March 19th)
  • The Strokes (March 26th)
  • She & Him (May 7th)
  • Fitz & The Tantrums (May 7th)

Are you kidding me? HALF THE YEAR. Who knows what else will be released in the back half? Other artists that have teased new albums are Jamie Cullum (more than teased, I’m convinced he’s days away from making a confirmed album release announcement), The Bird and The Bee, and Cee-Lo.

Now to the good stuff. I have already written about how excited I am for Justin Timberlake’s return to the music scene, especially after his earth-shattering Grammy performance. “Pusher Love Girl” was so insanely unexpected, both in how awesome it was going to be (I secretly had lowered my album expectations for fear of being severely disappointed) and also just the structure of the song itself. It struck me immediately as a rhythm-heavy song, not in volume but rather in what fundamentally grounded the whole song from going off the rails. But married to that rhythmic element was the most bombastic mix of strings, voices, horns, all culminating a melodic piece of music that floored me. The minor chord in the chorus kept surprising me every single time I heard it, and seriously bore itself into my brain. All of this makes me think that JT is set to release his most musically powerful set of songs yet, but also his most fun. I am psyched out of my mind about The 20/20 Experience.

And here’s where my Sweeping Declaration might prove to be premature. The last two huge album releases have not been confirmed yet, and truly only teased.

Thirteen years ago, D’Angelo released Voodoo and the music world has been waiting for a follow up since then. We might finally see it this year. D had all but retired completely from the scene until January of 2012, when he played his first shows in Europe in over a decade. Later that year, he played his first shows in the U.S. Everyone got excited. Then we didn’t hear anything about a new album. Then Questlove started actively tweeting about studio time with D. Then Russell Elevado, the sound engineering yoda behind Voodoo, started tweeting about finishing up recording and working on mixes of songs off of the new album. THEN in an interview with Billboard just weeks ago, Questlove made a series of seriously exciting statements about the new album:

  • “Right now, we’re just tightening up the loose ends. But I still stand by, 99% of it is done.”
  • “I would not be far off by saying this is probably my generation’s version of Sly (and the Family Stone’s) ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On.’ It’s potent. It’s funky. It’s an extremely hard pill to swallow.”
  • “If this record is not turned in by February, then something is extremely wrong. Because we worked to the bone in the entire month of January just to tighten up all the loose ends.”

Considering that February is over, I can only hope and assume it’s been handed in to get bundled up for release into the real world. And after seeing this performance video from last year, there’s no way this album won’t be a groundbreaking, watershed musical moment in my life.

And while I would much rather have a new D album than any of the others on this list, I just heard about this next release this morning and am extremely excited about it. Daft Punk have begun seriously teasing a new album release this year. Now I’d heard rumors that they were working on something new, but just recently several things are in place to give those rumors some real weight. First, Nile Rodgers stated he had been working with them in the studio on some upcoming material. Even if you don’t recognize that name, you’ve heard his music everywhere. Rodgers was a co-founder of the band Chic, whose numerous ’70s hits include “Good Times” and “Le Freak” (YouTube them, you will recognize them instantly). He followed up his stint with Chic by producing loads of the most hugely successful music in the next couple decades (Madonna, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, The B-52s, to name a few). So fingers crossed, Daft Punk’s new material has a serious R&B/Disco flavor to it.

Second, in the last few weeks, Daft Punk’s website was changed to nothing but this picture:

Image

And in the corner, the tiny little logo of the Columbia record label. This is significant because they had previously released their albums through EMI Records, and a label change means big things are in the works. And let’s be honest, how awesome is that picture?

Third, and by far the most significant, last night during SNL, this came on during one of the commercial breaks:

Oh my goodness. While it is only a 15-second snippet, this is the most blaringly obvious hint that new music is coming down the pipeline SOON. And my previous hope that this music would bear the hallmark of Nile Rodgers’ production has been overwhelmingly confirmed. This snippet sounds like a B-side off of RisquéIt is groovy and it is funky. A breath of fresh air from Human After All, which ironically sounded incredibly unhuman. Much more reminiscent of Discovery, but as if it had been released in 1977. Cannot wait.

With a fantastic line-up of second tier album releases, and the heavy-hitting triumvirate of JT/D/Daft Punk, I think my Sweeping Declaration is a winner. Now if John Mayer surprised everybody by secretly releasing an album of instrumentals he made while he’s been off the grid, there’d be no question.

-Jon

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He’s back.

Damn. This is some deep, cold-blooded funk. 12 years later, you can’t rush genius.

-Jon

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January 26, 2012 · 8:26 pm

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 1

I have an iTunes playlist named Top 1000, and it is the 1000 songs with the highest playcounts. Last night, Colleen and I were hanging out and listening to some music, and I had a great idea. I am going to put this playlist on random and write about the first few songs that play. Might be my personal review of the song, or what influenced the song or who it influenced. Not only does this give me a chance to relisten to songs I probably have listened to in awhile, it will help me learn more about the incredible music I own. Let’s get to it.

1. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This might be the easiest to unpack on this first set of five. This is a song off of Lonely Avenue, the joint album between Folds and Hornby. It’s written from the perspective of poor Levi Johnston, an Alaskan kid whose life would be completely different had he just worn a condom. When they were just 18 years old, he and Bristol Palin announced (via Sarah Palin’s campaign) that they were pregnant. And getting married. Poor kid. And that’s essentially the message of the song. He clearly had no idea what he got himself involved in and was in over his head. Obviously, this song paints an unpleasant picture of the entire gang involved. Johnston, the Palin women, and the moral value system their campaign was based upon is not looked on in a favorable light. But whatever your political view is, the song does get its message across in an effective way as most Ben Folds songs do. It takes the pretty awful protagonist and makes him relatable, so rather than judging the kid for being a douche bag (which he clearly is), you’re left shaking your head at how much of a kid he was when the whole thing happened. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it makes me feel bad for him and Bristol more than anything else. The song has a very pretty pre-chorus too.

2. “The Root” – D’Angelo, Voodoo

Definitely my favorite of this set of five, and the most dense. I listened to this song during my break outside tonight. As the song gets into the penultimate chorus, my head bob got increasingly inaccurate. That’s where the groove lies. The interplay between ?uestlove’s drumming and Charlie Hunter’s bass guitar playing is so laid back. It sounds like they’re playing a game to see who can be behind the beat more often, and they each have their turn. It’s a crazy beat to follow. And the guitar is insane. I mentioned Charlie Hunter; he not only plays bass for this tune, but he is simultaneously laying down the guitar track. The guitar he used was an 8-string guitar/bass combo, so the three low strings are actually bass strings, and the top five are guitar. The way he marries the two sounds so good.

Now focus on D’Angelo. This is how good his whole album is; when I listen to it, I often find myself overlooking his vocals because of how good his instrumentation is. And his vocals are from another world. His voice is saturated with soul. His voice is so strong and stirring that he doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of soul, he stands among them. And this song is a perfect example. He sings of the emotional remains of a love that has broken down. This woman has done worked a root on our man D. What I love is the drama he brings to this tune. He speaks about his failed love in terms of life and death and all things in between. “In the name of love and hope, she took my shield and sword, from the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor. Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” While this might seem a bit sensational, this is how it feels to have love mess you up. Clearly this poor guy is wrecked. But his emotional trauma makes for the funkiest,dirrtiest break-up song ever.

3. “Midnight Cruiser” – Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill

Not much to say about this one. This is off the album Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is a great album, and that’s the reason this song made it into the Top 1000. While not a terrible song, it is one of the more forgettable tracks from the album, with Stewart Mason of Allmusic.com* calling it “musically faceless.” A great description.

4. “Up With The Birds” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

One of my lesser favorite tunes off of Mylo Xyloto. Musically I feel like this belongs way more with Prospekt’s March than this album. Or maybe this whole album is really just a continuation of that EP. I’d say due to a few key musical elements (specifically Jonny Buckland’s super fast guitar riffs), there is a big connection between that EP and this new album. And while this particular tune has some nice sounds (first half), the second half reminds me so much of Now My Feet Won’t Touch The Ground. Just kind of a bland way to end a pretty cool, large album.

5. “Like A Star” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

This was the second song I ever heard by CBR. The acoustic version of Put Your Records On was offered as a free download of the week by iTunes and I remember thinking I had to hear more of this voice that just oozed British soul. Whenever I can hear a woman sing the word “can’t” and it sounds like “caaaan’t,” I very nearly fall in love. So once I heard this tune, I lost my mind. The way this song is set up is so perfect. The feeling of the song sounds like one acoustic guitar following this beautiful chord progression, but then when the drums and strings comes in just before the 1:00 mark, it brings it to this other level of sexiness that really draws the listener in and overwhelms them. I don’t know how CBR spans so many different music genres and blends them together so seamlessly. It’s R&B/soul with the genetic code of jazz. While I’m sure creating a song this fluid is not easy, it’s a credit to her talent that she is able to make it sound so effortless.

-Jon

http://www.allmusic.com/song/midnight-cruiser-t2372527

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?uestlove.

Another blog courtesy of “drinking” and “driving.”Pitchfork recently interviewed ?uestlove and as always, it is an entertaining and incredibly informative read. The guy is an absolute music genius, one of the few of our generation whose music references I take very seriously and view as must-adds to my music collection. He’s got this intense knowledge of music; today’s various music scenes as well as a deep intimacy with soul music of the ’60s and ’70s. It blows me away.

This blog is inspired by two interviews with ?uest that I read today. One is from 2003, and one is from yesterday (8/19/11). The guy is this mad scientist/chameleon/jack-of-all-trades of music. I certainly would not want to restrict him to a hip hop box because he clearly knows the world outside of it, even though his band (The Roots) is a hip hop group. He makes music references like all he does all day long is listen to music. It’s amazing. I want that job. I want the music research job, where you listen to records all day long, read liner notes all day long, figure out who played drums on what record while producing another record, how music connects, how musicians align, continually grow the big picture view of this giant web of music of the last 100 years. It’s obvious by how he talks that ?uestlove has this kind of over-arching, encyclopedic knowledge of music.

But what I love the absolute most about ?uestlove is when he talks about D’Angelo. ?uestlove was integral in the creation and production of D’s landmark album Voodoo and all I’ve ever wanted is for a musician to put out something as good as Voodoo in the last ten years. I think some have come close, possibly even matched it, but so, so few. This album is just out of control good. I am talking a kind of good that percolates. Good that sneaks up on you. Good that shows up after the fifteenth listen and gets better every single time. I still hear stuff on this album that I haven’t caught before. I’ve never heard anything as layered as this.

But this isn’t the time to actually write about Voodoo in a review sort of way.* What I want to highlight here is how important ?uestlove is to the current music scene. The first interview is eight years old now. ?uestlove and the interviewer chat about the then-current state of black music and how sociopolitical aspects of the day play into black music, but the good stuff comes when they start to chat about working with D’Angelo during the recording of Voodoo. It’s such a cool concept; Voodoo was made on the principle that music is art and should be made with the utmost respect to those pioneers who have come before and the unknown visionaries that are to come and always with respect to the art itself. All of these incredibly musical people came together and made this mind-blowing album. It wasn’t about money or gaining fans, it was about releasing a product, this work of art that could change how someone listened to music. “If creating music were a political party, then we were sort of being socialists.” Why can’t more artists think this way?

What I love is how he reinforces this ideal. He mentions going into the studio to record with John Mayer around the time of the interview (?uestlove played drums on “Clarity” off of the Heavier Things album in 2003). And ?uest actually says it was the most fun he’d had playing since recording Voodoo. He said he went in to record the one tune and they ended up jamming out like six new songs. That’s incredible. It makes me so excited to know that these two musical brains have collaborated in the past and they are both still making music today, albeit not together. It is a giant relief to me, and it’s one of those moments I have so infrequently nowadays when I think “Oh yeah, John Mayer used to be make amazing music and still has the potential to put out a completely life-altering record.” Here’s to hoping.

Also equally as interesting in this interview is how he profiles the breakdown of D’Angelo. How releasing “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” as a single off of Voodoo contributed to a very sexualized public persona that D’Angelo found hard to overcome. How the tour to support Voodoo quickly unwound because of all of this public hype. It’s a sad story, but one that is pretty common in genius artistic circles, as ?uestlove puts it, “…they sabotage their shit.”

Fast forward to August ’11. In this interview with Pitchfork, ?uestlove speaks a lot more about The Roots and where they are, what it’s like to be a house band of a late night host, etc. He does delve into the Soulquarian era a bit at the end, but overall this whole interview shows less his involvement with D’Angelo and more his ground-level view of rap over the last 20 years and how it has changed. This guy has been an integral part of hip-hop for over two decades now, and he has been in various circles as that time has gone by. This is a really interesting read for anyone who likes music, and especially anybody who likes hip hop.

I’m happy we still have ?uestlove around. I desperately hope he continues to coax D’Angelo out of semi-retirement, but at the very least, I hope he keeps collaborating. That is where I think he comes up with the greatest stuff. He has this uncanny ability to pull real music out of artists; he is our generation’s Quincy Jones and D’Angelo is his Michael Jackson. I just hope they eventually reconnect and make their Bad.

-Jon

*Not sure I ever will, only because it’s hard to write about something that good. All it seriously would be is me repeating over and over how awesome the whole freakin’ album is. Each track, “Wow this one is amazing.” Doesn’t make for the best read. What I should do is accumulate every time I’ve mentioned it in passing in another post and you’d have basically my every thought about the insanity and genius that is that album.

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