Tag Archives: Jamie Cullum

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 13

1. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life

This is probably the first song of Stevie’s that I heard and really heard. I know I’d probably heard his songs growing up, at least the big ones, like “Superstition” and “My Cherie Amour” and “Pasttime Paradise” (by way of Coolio, by way of Weird Al), and most like “Sir Duke.” But I remember really hearing this song for the first time, back in 2004, I believe I was listening to the radio in the car with Colleen and she perked up when “Sir Duke” started playing. If her ear perked, so did mine, so we gave this a listen while we drove.

I remember being struck by the hookiest hook of all time in that opening horn riff. Talk about an earworm; that riff can get stuck in your head for days. I was so moved by it that I resolved to learn how to play that riff on my newly purchased electric guitar. It was fantastic ear practice, and it came at just the right time for me, when I was beginning to discover lead guitar and how awesome it can be to play more than just chords. This horn riff was like honey to me.

But the song has a lot more than just some kick ass horns. The rhythm guitar in the verses is pretty great, and even more subtle, the bass guitar part throughout the song is either mirroring the horn riffs or going all over the freakin’ place on the last few choruses. It’s layered on pretty softly though, so you’ve got to focus to hear it. Once I heard it, my hat flew off in honor of the bassist Nathan Watts, because he really evokes the magnificent lines of guys like James Jamerson and Joseph “Lucky” Scott.

But what’s awesome about this tune, aside from just being super fun, is that it is an ode to Stevie’s musical heroes, and in a more general sense, an ode to music itself. “Sir Duke” is a celebration of one of the purest and most wholesome aspects of music as an art: it’s universality. Music has a way of breaking down barriers and uniting people in a very primal way, and that’s so perfectly illustrated in the way Stevie’s created this tune. At their most uninhibited and vulnerable, I feel like most people would have to find some pleasure or joy listening to the song that Stevie’s written, and that’s a beautiful testament to both Stevie’s talent and also his art.

2. “Mind Trick” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

This tune is a perfect example of how Jamie Cullum manages to stay a middle-of-the-road artist for me, despite the fact that he’s got more talent and musicality than 95% of artists today.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about this song. But it lands in the filler category for me. Cullum is a very unique artist; he can perform a straight forward jazz standard and sound right at home among Sinatra or Martin or any of the jazz crooners from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then he turns into a chameleon, shifting effortlessly between genres and embarking on covers that sound so radically different than the originals.

And if that’s all he did, without a doubt, he’d be one of my Top 5 Favorite Music Artists. But then I run into a tune like this, which again, is not a bad song, but it just doesn’t ever really take off for me. I don’t feel compelled to put this on repeat.

It’s a really simple ditty about how music helps get through a break up. Nothing too fancy, and the music fits it well. It is a really pleasant mix of jazz organ, a nice upbeat pop tempo, some “na-na’s” from the background vocalists. It just doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s pleasant, and that’s about it.

If this is your first introduction to Jamie Cullum, please keep listening to him. Go find another song. Listen to “Get Your Way” and “My Yard,” this album’s opener and closer. Both fantastic tunes. Or if you’re looking for his skill with covers, listen to his cover of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.” It still floors me. What has always left me wanting with Jamie Cullum is that while he has the ability to write songs that stop me in my tracks (like the Rihanna cover, or “Wheels,” or “Take Me Out (Of Myself)”), I feel like songs like “Mind Trick” are a lot easier and therefore more common on his albums. But again, I’d take middling songs like this one over the pap that other jazz-pop musicians put out (I’m looking directly at you, Bublé).

3. “Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek & The Dominoes, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs

This song has the distinction of being the earliest Eric Clapton song that really touches me. Sure, Clapton’s got loads of good songs from his work with John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, but I remember hearing this song for the first time and reacting differently to it than I had to any of Clapton’s other early work.

Listening to it now, I keep coming back to the hook. There’s something about hearing Clapton plead with his love, “I don’t want to fade away…” He communicates some serious anguish. This is a man on his last leg, begging to be able to stay with his love.

His vocal is almost indistinguishable from Delaney Bramlett, and I wrote briefly on a review of Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot why I wasn’t in love with them or Delaney’s voice. However, while they sound shockingly similar, Clapton’s vocal is bolstered completely by the musical component. He employs such a perfect mix of guitar tones all over this song, some clean and when he needs it on the chorus, some very crunchy.

It’s the crunchiness of his tone on the chorus that sets off this interesting juxtaposition between it and his vocal. His vocal sounds as crunchy as his axe does. But when these are placed on top of this gorgeous chord progression and added to the interplay between his multiple guitar parts (this song was recorded before Duane Allman joined the album sessions), it creates this southern rock symphony of sadness. This is the only way this guy would be able to beg for his love to stay.

Urban legend has it that he wrote this song for Patti Boyd, Clapton’s future wife yet then-wife of his friend and former Beatle, George Harrison. I’m not sure what you want to call it, irony, a slap in the face, a gauntlet thrown, but his guitar solo could not sound more like Harrison.

4. “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” – Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head

I must have tons of Coldplay in my Top 1000, because they are definitely making the biggest showing in all of my Shuffle Lessons volumes. Thankfully though, my iPod gave me a more vintage era Coldplay track, as most of the previous ones have been from Mylo Xyloto.

It’s difficult to hear a Coldplay song from AROBTTH or Parachutes without feeling a twinge of sadness. Coldplay now is nothing like Coldplay back then. They are a band that blew up almost too quickly. Their debut, Parachutes, was so highly lauded that by the time AROBTTH came around, they were battling expectations so unfairly high that they were nearly doomed to fail. This was magnified tenfold with the arrival of their third record, X&Y. For my money, AROBTTH is a fantastic sophomore release, despite the constant comparisons to U2 and derision from critics about abandoning the sound of their debut.

This album continues the slow exploration of expansive anthems that Coldplay would eventually become known for and would become their undoing. This particular track is a great example of that. While tunes like “The Scientist” and “Politik” take the anthem theme and run with it, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” is a great example of Coldplay’s early skill in knowing how to build the tension of a song really well.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar strumming the oddly tuned chords that form the basis of the whole track, and without anything else, it’s a difficult to tell where the song is headed. Everything changes with the introduction of the drums at the 0:45 mark. While all the other instrumental parts of this song are hinged around the strummed chord progression, this drum beat is barreling along all on its own. It creates this sense of urgency, like a train in danger of derailing. All the instruments are working together but the drums are on their own and keep this song moving.

But, as with many Coldplay songs, the release they find in their hooks is just so palpable. This is exemplified in each chorus, but especially in the last bridge at 3:45. I think it’s this release that made Coldplay hammer out so many wildly popular singles. They’ve got this incredible skill of building up all this tension, creating this urgency and then letting every instrument hit its mark and everything culminates in this fantastic hook or explosive bridge and it really makes you feel the emotional/musical release. It makes for some really satisfying music that keeps you coming back.

5. “Blue In Green” – Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue

And then my iPod throws me a curveball. This is the first time Miles is making a Shuffle Lessons appearance, which isn’t all that surprising as most of the Miles in my collection probably hasn’t broken through to the Top 1000.

But what a great song to kick off the jazz genre. This is my favorite tune off of Kind Of Blue, one of the most famous jazz records of all time. Interestingly enough, there is some dispute as to whether Miles actually wrote this song (he contends he composed each tune from the album) while pianist Bill Evans is often thought to have written this particular song. Either way, both men create true beauty on this song.

I enjoy this album most at nighttime, in a dimly lit room, needle hitting the vinyl as I’m hitting my second or third cocktail. The beginning piano chords are hypnotic and arresting. It’s these kinds of chords that made me start playing the piano again this year. Hearing the intricacies of the intervals, seeing a thousand accidentals on a page of music and thinking it could never sound good with so many sharps or flats and yet when played, Bill Evans makes this riff sound so sublime. I can’t explain it but it makes me feel so many things when I can stop, close my eyes and let this music wash over me.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 9

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.

1. “X&Y” – Coldplay, X&Y

This is one of my lesser-played tunes off of Coldplay’s third album. It just doesn’t have that initial catchiness that encourages repeat listens, yet it’s still a good song. I think I like/not love this song (and this album) because I’m prone to like anything Coldplay does, but this album definitely got a lot of flack when it was released for being kind of cold and emotionless. I can understand those criticisms listening to this song. Again, like/not love, there just isn’t anything in this tune that grabs you and emotionally shakes you by the shoulders like “What If” or “Fix You.” Listening to it closely, I feel like the guys in the band were swinging for the fences with another grandiose anthem but the end product seems a little overblown.

2. “Modern Nature” – Sondre Lerche, Faces Down

I first heard Sondre Lerche on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, when he performed the title track off of his sophomore album Two Way Monologue. I loved it, and I didn’t listen to him much again until he did the soundtrack for the movie Dan In Real Life. This song was the major song he’d already written that was featured in the movie, and it’s a nice one. It’s hard to describe Sondre Lerche’s music, but he’s got a very distinct sound. This song is a great example of it; plunky, a generous use of 7th chords, but not in an overtly cheesy way. It’s got a pleasing mix of acoustic/electric guitars, intriguing rhythm/percussion sections, and for this particular song, he’s accompanied by a female vocalist and their voices play very well against each other. Nice song.

3. “Love That Conquers” – The Swell Season, Strict Joy

This poor duo. They star in the movie Once and everybody freaks out about how great they are, and they can never live up to the hype of that movie or the soundtrack. Which is a shame, because if Strict Joy was a debut album and nobody had heard of them before, I think it would’ve been a bigger critical and commercial success. Remember how much everybody fawned over The Civil Wars when Barton Hollow came out? That album and Strict Joy are kindred spirits. Especially this song; it’s got a very strong Civil Wars vibe musically. Think “I’ve Got This Friend” with a different rhythm. In terms of the album, I gave this tune fewer listens than others, but it’s certainly a pleasant song. It’s got nice interplay between the acoustic riff and whatever acoustic instruments are adding ad-libs throughout the song. And as always, the voices of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sound like a match made in heaven. Today’s pop culture music scene could stand have more music made by this pair.

4. “London Skies” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

If you’re looking for the trademark sound of Jamie Cullum’s original tunes, look no further than “London Skies.” Oddly enough, this is not a piano-driven tune, but it still fits his sound so well. Fantastic guitar hook here, and it’s always nice to hear that from a piano player by trade. Lyrically, this is a beautifully-written love letter to London. What I love is that the London he’s writing about is not an all sunshine and roses city, but rather a city painted by gray. I read this as a hopeful song, even though it could be read as a depressing picture of the city. For the one day that I was in London, I saw this description come to life, and it was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I didn’t want the city to be sparkly, I wanted a little bit of dinginess with clouds that held back the sun, even though you knew it was there. The musical/lyrical complement in this song is what makes it so well-written; the lyrics on their own can read a bit sad, but when they’re put over the music, it adds that hopeful element that makes this song so great.

5. “Right As Rain” – Adele, 19

This tune is an exercise in scarcity. You’ve got drums, Adele, three or four back-up voices, and a bass and organ. Talk about simple. When you’ve got arguably the best pipes of our generation, you don’t need flowery arrangements. This song is built to highlight Adele. And she coasts through this thing. What’s crazy about listening to Adele is that it always seems effortless, she could sing anything thrown at her without breaking a sweat. This tune is just a simple ditty that was probably fun for her to sing. I also need to point out the insanely subtle back-up singers that show up in the second verse, providing a nice backdrop of “oooh’s” that complement Adele’s voice so well without overpowering it.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 8

1. “December 4th” – Jay Z, The Black Album

This is one of my Top 3 Favorite Jay Z songs. I’m not sure what exactly hits so deeply with me. When this album was released, Jay Z was billing it as his retirement from hip hop, so it was a pretty huge deal. This song plays out like a fond farewell to a long and illustrious career. Hov is reminiscing about his early days and there is something sad when he says “Goodbye to the game / all the spoils / the adrenaline rush…” Jay is without a doubt one of the best rappers in the history of hip hop, and to have him looking back at his broken childhood and adolescence through the lens of his current state sounds bittersweet.

Just Blaze is the producer on this track, and I have to say he knocks it out of the park. I don’t have the Chi-Lites album that features the song that he samples here, but when the beat kicks in at 0:32 after the “that’s how long” hook, it resonates; it really hits deeply. There couldn’t be a better opener for, arguably, Jay Z’s finest album.

2. “Gravity” – Sara Bareilles, Little Voice

This is a superb closer off of a fantastic debut album by Sara Bareilles. The whole album is catchy piano hit after catchy piano hit, but she brings the mood way down low to close it out. This is not a particularly happy song, but the music seems to befit the sentiment very well. She seems to be trying to get away from bad love, hence the theme. It’s a sprawling ballad, complete with an Adele-like orchestral climax where she hits a note that is truly stunning. Bareilles’ has a breathtaking voice, and this is coming from a guy who prefers male voices over female. It’s clear, controlled, and it’s a perfect blend of strength and breath. Her voice is relaxing because you never worry about what’s going to happen with it. She makes the listener trust her because of how well she can handle her own pipes. There isn’t another song on this album that communicates that ability so well.

3. “Fragments Of Time” – Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

I read several reviews of Daft Punk’s latest album that referenced a slick, ’70s, breezy, California feel. All of those reviews were referring to this song. Honestly, this song sounds like the result of an insane musical threesome between Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and Eagles, with some robotic noises thrown in for good measure. Definitely one of my favorite songs off the album, and the exact model of what I wish every other Random Access Memories song was like. Not even in sound, but more in structure. When Daft Punk put together a tune that is normal length and normal structure (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/solo, chorus, etc.), they create tunes I could listen to for days. That’s why I love Discovery so much; it is almost all “normal” tunes. Lots of Random Access Memories songs are great, but unnecessarily long and weird. This one is immediately listenable, where lots of their stuff actually isn’t. I can imagine my parents tolerating this, if not even enjoying it a little bit.

Musically, it’s incredibly similar to “Digital Love” off of Discovery, which is not too surprising, considering that is one of my favorite Daft Punk songs ever. This is just a well-paced, fun listen, with a kick-ass robot-voiced solo. Major props to Todd Edwards for delivering fantastic vocals, much like his vocal work on Discovery. When the robots make a song with a vocal, it’s almost always a winner. This one definitely is.

4. “Wheels” – Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit

If Cullum’s cover of “Don’t Stop The Music” had any competition for my favorite song off of this album, it would be “Wheels.” This is a tune that draws you in immediately. Another example of perfect understatement, the beat here is the real star of the show. Cullum sings with an earnestness that doesn’t cross into desperation, discussing the plans we make as youths which are so often abandoned as time changes us. The piano hook is so simple and cyclical, matching the lyrical theme. But as I said before, the rhythm of this song pushes this song farther than you’d expect. There is a quickness and circular nature in the beat that makes me think of a fast-moving train, plugging along in a way that we can’t stop. Much like time, and change. This is a sad song, and Cullum has dressed it up in such a gorgeously melancholy way.

5. “Theme” – Jon Brion, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

This is a spell-binding two and a half minute instrumental, or as it’s titled, the “Theme” from the Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind soundtrack. This piece is truly one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard. I think a lot of the reason it affects me so much is because of the gut reaction I get from the movie. For me, it’s one of the most emotional movies I’ve ever seen, and that is manifested in a really special way through this music. This is the tune that opens the movie, and it always brings me excitement, pensiveness, and melancholy. It’s a beautiful piece of music, plain and simple. When the song starts, there is this gorgeous sound behind the bass and piano melody, much like waves on the ocean. Not the actual sound of ocean waves but it’s as though that specific sound could be expressed in a completely musical way. The subtlety of the sound makes it almost imperceptible. It forms the foundation of the song, on which every other part is built, and it’s the last thing you hear in the song. There is a simplicity in this tune that captures the innocence and bittersweet nature of the film. Just piano and bass. Hardly anything else. The bass plays a hypnotic and gorgeous riff while the piano plays a magnificently sad melody. How these pieces fit together captures me every single time.

If this was looked at as a one off tune, it would be considered a very beautiful instrumental. But within the larger context of the film’s score, it underpins every other musical piece. It is called “Theme” because every piece in the score is a variation or offshoot of this original tune. And to listen to the score once, you’d most likely not hear it. It takes many dedicated listens (or viewings of the film) before you begin to hear the “Theme” inform and haunt nearly every scene of the movie and every part of the score. On the first listen through, this score is disjointed and jarring, much like Jim Carrey’s character responding to the memory-erasing treatment. There are musical parts that are lifted from other scenes and things that are repeated or called back and it often sounds incredibly chaotic. But with time, you can begin to hear the nuances of the “Theme” running through the entire score and movie, and it adds an entirely new dimension to the experience. This is a truly captivating piece of music.

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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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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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Another one about music.

First, I know it’s been nearly three months since I wrote last. Yikes. I’ll see what I can do about it.

In a week, Jamie Cullum’s fourth album, The Pursuit, is released in the US. I’m crazy excited, because Jamie Cullum is awesome to begin with, but yesterday I finally listened to one of the songs off this upcoming album. I hadn’t heard any cuts yet, and holy cow did this one blow me away. You will almost certainly recognize this song by Rihanna:

OK, so that’s a great pop tune, killer MJ sample in the middle, great beat, fun to dance to, the whole bit. It’s a fun song. Now, here is one facet of Cullum’s genius that blows me away. He can take a song from basically any genre and make it incredible in his own specific way. He takes Rihanna’s great song and turns it into this:

Why can’t Youtube write embedding codes that work well? I’m not savvy enough to get this video to fit inside the parameters of my blog. Anyway.

Gosh. Hear how he builds into the chorus? It feels so huge. And his chords, oh man does he nail this song. He turns this great pop tune into the most beautiful, jazzy anthem. Unbelievable.
The last album I bought was JM’s Battle Studies; before that, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. I hardly ever by CDs anymore, and this is one that I am definitely making the trip out to Best Buy next Tuesday to get. You should too.
-Jon

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