Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 12

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons here.

1. “Stuck In The Middle” – Mika, Life In Cartoon Motion

A fantastic hook is on display in this tune, one of many fantastic hooks on a really strong debut album from Freddie Mercury’s pop heir apparent, Mika. Granted, Mika hasn’t had the steadiest consistency in album qualities, but his debut is his best work; absolutely worth checking out if you need a smile in your life.

Lyrically, I’m reading this song as a dig at a strained parental relationship. Interesting how he dresses a heavy subject in such colorful clothes. There are several songs on the album where this is done, so if you don’t pay close attention, it’s just an overtly positive sounding album, but with a third or fourth listen, you start hearing the lyrical layers he’s created.

Musically, this tune is a really great representation of where Mika excels. It is built on an insanely catchy little piano riff. One of the best things about this song (and the album in general) is how well orchestrated Mika’s tunes are. Everything is added to that riff and it creates a lot of great kinetic energy.

It’s the little things like the rhythm guitar in the chorus or in the second verse, Mika’s fabulous at doing these instrumental flourishes that build the song out so well and create a very colorful tableau. The scat part at the song’s conclusion highlights this really well.

2. “Losing My Way” – Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds

Now that I’m thinking about it, this is the only solo song JT’s ever recorded that tackles an “issue,” unless you consider dressing fly and being a ladies man an issue. JT’s singing about the dangers of drug abuse from the perspective of a husband/father from a lower socioeconomic class.

Surprisingly, I like this song a lot (surprising because “issue” songs are often very trite; a four minute pop song isn’t really the best place to try and dissect a social issue). As far as song quality goes, it’s good enough that I’m surprised JT’s never attempted an issue song since.

Musically, this is a really subdued tune from Timbaland, with the usual Timbo touches gone, replaced here only with a “ba-dum-bah” refrain that underlays the entire song. Granted, the song ends with a gospel choir in the background, but in the context of the song, they fit perfectly and add a very soulful prayer-like flavor to the song. As this is a black sheep song in the Justin Timberlake catalog, it makes me think JT and Timbo could write more songs like this, especially to fill the space on the second half of The 20/20 Experience where it sounded like they were taking songs left over from *NSYNC days (I’m referring specifically to the last 11 minutes of the album, completely superfluous).

3. “Veridis Quo” – Daft Punk, Discovery

One of the things I love about writing these posts is that it forces me to give a really focused listen to songs I wouldn’t normally, or songs I’m surprised are even in my Top 1000. This is a perfect example, a song that was on an album I absolutely loved and listened to a lot, but for some reason, continually got forgotten about as I listened through it.

When I think about Daft Punk’s Discovery, “Digital Love” and “One More Time” are obviously the stand-out tracks, but there are tunes like “Veridis Quo” that are very unique and interesting in their own way.

This is an atmosphere track. No lyrics, just instrumentals of various kinds. It absolutely belongs in an outer space travel scene in an anime show (oh wait, they already did that).

What gives it this ephemeral, spacey quality is the fact that the synth upon which the whole melody is built never actually breaks. You know how with the guitar or a trumpet or a piano, to change notes you actually have to either let your finger off the fret, or take a new breath, or put your finger on a new key? With this synth melody, they’ve managed to connect it all in a way that sounds like an eternal instrumental loop. It creates a sound that just washes over you like the remnants of a supernova.

While it’s definitely not my favorite song off of Discovery, as far as the instrumentals go, it’s a very pretty song to listen to. My biggest complaint with this album in general is actually songs like this one, because with too many of them, you lose the listen-ability factor because the average music listener doesn’t want an album full of atmospheric synth instrumentals (this is the biggest problems with their albums pre- and post-Discovery, Homework and Human After All).

That’s not to say this song is bad though, especially considering it is a five minute long synth instrumental. I’d say it’s a little repetitive, but I don’t think Daft Punk care about repetition when they make their music. I’d almost say it’s one of their strong suits.

4. “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” – Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

Sufjan. Possibly the most complex and unique songwriter under the age of 40 that graces my iTunes library. This guy is incredibly intelligent, and each song off of his Illinois album sounds like it is the result of a graduate thesis. Or at least each song could be the subject of a graduate thesis.

Sufjan is hands down one of the most literary songwriters I’ve ever heard. This song can be read several different ways, with so many of his lyrics being just vague enough to encourage interpretation.

Here goes: I think the opening verse introduces us to the narrator, who is either in a lucid-dream state, not sleeping in the middle of the night, or just falling to sleep, as he sees something in his bedroom that reminds him of a childhood memory. The song then transports the narrator and the listener back to his childhood, to a time at a summer camp where he and his brother and/or friend came upon what they thought was a giant mutant wasp monster.

What I love about this song is how Sufjan takes a seemingly unrelated subject and turns it into a reflection on human nature and how we respond to the world around us. I read this song as a humble prayer to God about his Creation, the beautiful and terrible parts of it (i.e. the “great sights” of the land and the “terrible sting” of the predatory wasp). Sufjan is singing an ode to the beauty of God’s creation through the lens of the imagination and innocence of childhood.

Or he could be singing about a crush he had on a friend at summer camp. It doesn’t really matter, but it does display what depth Sufjan writes into his songs.

I haven’t even gotten to the music yet. This song starts with a very simple acoustic guitar pattern with some kind of woodwinds played on top. The finger-picked chords of the first verse are a perfect testament to how Sufjan can take something familiar and make it sound fresh.

The next addition is the very soft background vocals, which will come into play later in the song. And then we get into the first refrain, where Sufjan teases at the orchestration that’s to come. I hear a mix of accordion-sounding woodwinds (the accordion is not a woodwind but I can’t describe it any other way, maybe a glockenspiel?) over some piano chords and a tambourine. The blend is gorgeous.

Then right at 2:10, this horn comes in for a bar and is then followed up by another horn doing harmony. As gorgeous as the orchestration becomes just after these two bars and at the end of the song, this might be my favorite musical moment of the song. It’s so simple and so refined; you hear each element with so much clarity. This sound so perfectly encapsulates what Illinois sounds like as an album and why Sufjan excels as a musician. He’s able to create these sonic landscapes with a lot or a little, and he knows exactly where to add and where to abstain.

If you haven’t listened to this album, go check out this song. It’s a great representation of how dense Sufjan makes his music.

5. “Smooth Criminal” – Michael Jackson, Bad

If you are just about 30 years old, and didn’t listen to pop radio in the ‘80s, it is very likely that your first introduction to this song was a cover by a band named Alien Ant Farm in 2001. As I recall, it was a pretty huge hit (at least in Iowa, I remember hearing it on the radio all the time). And I remember thinking it was a pretty hard rockin’ tune.

Oddly enough, the main difference between it and MJ’s original is the metal-sounding guitars in the cover. Take those away, and you’ve almost got the original song.

Which is for the best, because obviously the original is the best. MJ somehow took a song about a breaking-and-entering/assault and turned it into a pretty intense club banger. It is a pretty dark tune, considering the hook that everyone knows is “Annie, are you O.K.?” when clearly she’s not.

But that doesn’t take away from how rockin’ MJ and Quincy made this tune sound. It all really comes to a head during the bridge, when a public service announcer’s voice tells everybody to “Clear the area, right now!” as a siren blares in the background. The song then launches into the bridge, which features an in-your-face mix of blazing synthesizer, a pan-flute-like rhythmic section, and of course MJ’s patented hee-hees.

The other thing that struck me as I listened to this one is how cinematic it sounds. From the beginning four-second intro before the song really hits to the atmospheric sound effects in the bridge, it’s really clear that MJ was moving toward a more cinematic expression in his music and art.

This is evident 100% in the music video, which I’ve linked above. While the song is about four minutes long, the video is a full five minutes past that, clocking in at over nine minutes. The whole thing is like a short film, and MJ uses one of the coolest effects in all of his videos, the anti-gravity lean. Be sure to check it out. The dude could dance like nobody else.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 4

1. “In Step” – Girl Talk, Feed The Animals

This track kicks off with Drama’s “Left, Right” over a mash of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.” Gotta love that spray paint can rattling noise over Orbison singing. Second part kicks off with “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa over Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which is an insanely creative appropriation of that grunge riff. It’s interesting that Girl Talk opted out of the instantly recognizable (to ’90s kids) hook of the Salt-N-Pepa song, that synthey “bah, BAH bah bah bah…” and instead just used the rap and some of the beat I think.

This track definitely starts low and crescendos by the end, with Ludacris’ verse from Fergie’s “Glamorous” over Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” The “take your broke ass home!” chant over EWF’s “bah-dee-yah” refrain is just awesome. The song caps off with Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” over what I’m assuming is chopped up beats from Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3” OR Diddy Feat. Keyshia Cole’s “Last Night,” but in reality I can’t hear the beat element in either of those original tunes.

Overall, not one of my favorites off of this album. There are some alright mash-ups (EWF x Luda is pretty great), but no real “oh no he didn’t!!” moments like many of the other tracks.

2. “Choux Pastry Heart” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

One of the many understated beauties off of Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut album. The entire album is essentially an experiment of combining jazz, folk and soul genres and seeing what happens. The result is fantastic, and it’s probably only made better by the fact that you can occasionally hear CBR’s soft English accent in her voice. So pretty. This song is, as many of this album’s songs are, easily ignored. “Ignore” has too negative of a connotation, what I mean is that it very easily fades into the background of the listener’s environment. If you want to truly hear this song, get some headphones and quiet everything else down. What is she singing about? I never know. I never really need to though, because her voice naturally emanates a kind of melancholy in the way she hits notes, how she controls her breath and the cadence of her lyrical lines. I just gave this song a solid three listens in a row, and I still don’t know what the song is about, but I sure do know she’s heartbroken. I love CBR and this song for that reason; she has this emotional command over her voice that is memorizing, but only if you work for it. The second you start to pay attention, she’s got you hooked.

3. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson, Thriller

I’ve been a little nervous to get a song like this in this series. What the heck do you write about one of Thriller‘s deeper tracks, let alone the arguable grand daddy of them all? I’m just going to take it at face value and run with it.

So I’m a huge fan of this song, mainly because I’ve only really known it for no longer than 10 years. One of the very few advantages of not growing up on secular music is the older-aged discoveries of all of this incredible music I essentially missed out on (I’m looking at you, Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”). This is one of those songs that I never listened to as a kid and subsequently never got sick of. However, contrary to popular belief, I hate hearing this song at weddings or organized group events where I’m expected to dance to it. As much as I love this song, it’s just a little too slow for me (or most white people at the weddings I go to) to feel comfortable dancing to it. It’s almost too stripped down for reserved people to feel able to let loose and dance.

But it’s exactly that sparceness that makes this tune so great. The drums, that ridiculously catchy bass line, the funky rhythm guitar, each element here has been meticulously chosen to form this cohesive end product. Like nearly everything on Thriller, it’s a beautiful example of how MJ knew how to write an infectiously catchy tune and what a genius producer Quincy Jones was/is.

4. “Something About Us” – Daft Punk, Discovery

Easily one of my Top 3 Favorites off of Discovery, my favorite Daft Punk album. One of only two legitimately slow songs on the album, this is just a heartfelt and romantic song sung by a robot. One of the greatest things that Daft Punk has ever been able to do is play with this robot persona they’ve had for almost 20 years and juxtapose it alongside true emotion in their music. This song is all blips and bloops and synth and yet it’s got this inherently sad feeling to it. This robot is pleading for love and connection. This song exudes the most authentic emotion capable from artificial intelligence. This song is the best way to slow down the relentless pace of great song after great song on Discovery.

5. “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

My iPod must be sad today cause it grabbed three sad songs out of 1000. Here is another pretty depressing song about the heartbreak of being left and the remorse of leaving. This is one of the songs that originally hooked me from Rumours. I’m not in love with Stevie Nicks’ voice, but it grabs me in this song. “Dreams of loneliness, like a heartbeat, drives you mad, in the stillness of remembering what you had…” Yikes. Hell hath no fury, amiright Justin? I also love the under-instrumentation in this tune. The verses are basically just the steady drum beat and heartbeat-like bass line, with the occasional sliding guitar riff thrown in. There’s not a lot more on top of that, and that serves to highlight Stevie’s part even more. This is a very pretty, very sad song off of a decently happy album.

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tell ’em that it’s…..

i’d like to state first and foremost that as a nation, we should move on from michael jackson’s death. yes he was a pop icon, but the guy hadn’t released anything really good since ’87’s “bad.” his talent was not taken from us “too soon,” as is always said when a celebrity dies. he wasn’t murdered, there is no conspiracy, we don’t need to hear any interviews with his personal chef. he was just an old dude who had some health problems and had a heart attack. move on, mass media.

that being said, i want to bring attention to this performance of “human nature” from the mj tribute show. say what you will about john mayer, the dude is such a versatile musician. love that guitar tone.
-jon

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itunes update.

a few days ago, colleen left for romania. she’s there three weeks, which means we won’t be able to talk at all. obviously, this is a sucky and huge bummer. luckily for me, two things happened today that will make these weeks fly right by.

1. i procured, basically, the entire the ricky gervais show series. i am so excited. the show is just these three english guys chatting about whatever. honestly, they talk about everything. world events, animals, philosophy, scientific theories, movies, their daily routines, etc. the most random stuff in the world. and it’s about the funniest thing i’ve ever heard.

2. the time of the month has come again for another itunes update. i’d been looking forward to this one for a while now, as i knew there were going to be some serious changes to my Top 100. the last month i went through a gigantic michael jackson phase. i got the album bad and went to town on it, off the wall, and thriller. did a lot of rhythmic walking those weeks. colleen also sent me jack johnson’s latest album, sleep through the static. i listened to that quite a bit. then the last few days i’ve been in a bit of a ben folds thing, but i’m feeling a daft punk period coming on. and other than mj, jack johnson, and ben folds, i listened to the odd album or song here and there.

the ipod has been plugged in and the changes have been noted. i think a fair amount has changed too. first of all, there are now 6 songs that have peaked over a playcount of 100, and 3 more that are really close to it. other than that, my overall Top 100 has changed a lot. obviously i’m not gonna go into much more detail than that, what a bore. but it’s been interesting for me to see what new tunes have shown up, how older tunes have gone up in rank, etc. and that’s about it. this might be the last update i do, since the next one i would do i’ll be back in the states. i think i’ll continue keeping my play counts hidden until a designated day of the month, but probably no more blogs about it. i like how my music listening has changed slash improved since i’ve been here in spain, and i would like to stick with it once i’m back in the states. but to end this one, here’s my current Top 10 Most Played list:

10. Around the World / Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – Daft Punk
9. I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You) – John Mayer
8. Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love) – Jay-Z
7. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
6. Good Life – Kanye West feat. T-Pain
5. Slow Dancing In A Burning Room
4. Lesson Learned (feat. John Mayer) – Alicia Keys
3. Flashing Lights – Kanye West feat. Dwele
2. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – Michael Jackson
1. Baby Be Mine – Michael Jackson

newest addition: billie jean. let’s have some love for mj.

-jon

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the girl is mine.

i love this video for so many reasons. first of all, john legend is great. i want to play piano like he does someday. secondly, stephen colbert is not only one of funniest entertainers in show business, he has a pretty good voice. thirdly, although not my favorite song off thriller, this is the perfect duet for stephen and john to sing together. and about lady liberty no less. check it (audio only).

so great.

-jon

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just press play.

EDITED OCTOBER 17, 2011: I wrote this on Blogger and had experimented with an embedded music player on the right hand column. That no longer exists and I have no way to track down what song I featured. I can only assume it was either “Baby Be Mine” or “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)“. Take your pick.

ok, new thing off to the right. go ahead, click the play button. enjoy. this is one of the greatest pop songs i’ve ever listened to in my life.

this music player thing is giving me a bit of a headache. i’m trying to figure out a way to embed a player right into a blog rather than just off to the side. the problem with the way it is now is that i can’t modify that playlist at all, i can either take it down or leave it up, as/is. which is a bit frustrating because i want to be able to embed the player directly into a blog, so i can write something about a song and then have the song right there so you can listen to it. what a great thing that would be. if i could figure out how to do that, the number of blogs concerning music would very likely shoot through the roof.

until then, however, just listen to this classic mj tune while it’s up. it will almost certainly make your day better.

-jon

p.s. duh another super important blog i forgot about! i have this sweet playlist on itunes that has bunches of famous/not famous rap songs and the older tunes that they sample. if that doesn’t make any sense, it will when i’ve finally written it. it’ll be sweet though.

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