A Ukrainian Benefit Album

If you’re looking for a new album to relax or work to, check out this new ambient\modern classical compilation album at Bandcamp. 100% of all proceeds (even Bandcamp fees) will be given to the International Rescue Committee (rescue.org) to support displaced Ukrainian children and families.

BUT WAIT… THERE’S MORE! The album was coordinated by Mint Julep’s Hollie Kenniff, and contains a track from her and her husband (under his “Goldmund” alter-ego). If you buy the album in the next week or so and send a screencap of your receipt to Mint Julep’s Facebook Messenger account, they’ll send you a link to their new, as yet unreleased, covers album. It’s got their take on Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”, Tears for Fears’ “Shout”, Headphones’ “I Never Wanted You” and more!

That’s TWO ALBUMS for as little as $10! GO! GO! GO! HELP SOME UKRAINIANS AND GET SOME NEW TUNES! DO IT NOW!

https://headphonecommute.bandcamp.com/album/for-ukraine-volume-1

My Top Albums Of 2021

There was an avalanche of great music in 2021! I could sit here and try to come up with a compelling intro this year… but instead of some long monologue… let’s just get right to it!

Below are my ten favorite albums of 2021. The list comes from my Last.fm stats generally; I reserve the right to tinker with the order. After that are the honorable mentions, followed by some notable albums and EPs. Then there’s the “Song of the Year” and the raw data from Last.fm.

My Top Albums of 2021

10) Theodora – Too Much For One Heart – France’s Theordora is a producer, bassist and singer who has worked with such noted French acts Pi Ja Ma, Fishbach, SAGE and others. And her debut album is really solid! Spotify put “Vagiues Dans La Mer” on one of my playlists, so I checked out the rest of the album and liked it. “Step Into Disorder” is a track I really dug. Not everything is golden here, though: “Go” is a song I could absolutely live without. Still, I look forward to hearing more from her in the near future.

9) Munya – Voyage to Mars– Talk about showing up out of nowhere! Montreal’s Josie Boivin (performing as “Munya”) just kind of blew me out of the water with her debut album! “Voyage” sucked me in immediately, as it reminds me of a Saint Etienne non-album single from 1994. It kicks, and has the odd distinction of starting off in English and finishing in French. But as I listened to the album I was surprised by how many good songs there are here. “Cocoa Beach” is a chill (but thumpin’) pop tune that is just crying out for some hip TV show to put in an episode. “Pour Toi” sounds like something you’d hear in whatever the French version of The Gap is (Petit Bateau? Camaieu?). “Boca Chica” is a lovely throwback to 60s bubblegum pop. Not every song works, and after a while it does tend to get a bit “samey”. But as a fun lil’ album, this is hard not to like!

8) Kraków Loves Adana – Follow the Voice – Let me start by saying I have no idea what happened when KLA left Italians Do It Better. But then Chromatics broke up, which makes me think Johnny Jewel is a control freak. I mention this because I’m one of the few people who prefers the Jewel version of the title track over the one below. And I think Jewel’s presence in the production room was a good thing for the band. But I get it: KLA needed to be free, and they’re now free to make another great album. KLA is such a… dramatic band. I don’t mean that every song is DRAMA or INTENSE. There’s just something so… Streets of Fire about them. Like, every one of their albums is a rock and roll fable. Even though they’re from Freiburg you can almost feel the spirit of Meatloaf with them in the studio. Problem is, for me, this trick eventually wears out its welcome. So KLA albums are rarely something I listen to start to finish. It’s all about individual tracks with these guys. “Follow the Voice” is, of course, fantastic. But so are “I Have to Go”, “See You Shout” and “Taint My Mind”.  In fact, the first 8 tracks hit it pretty hard, it just kind of runs out of gas by the end. Still, a good KLA album is a wonderful thing!

7) Alice et Moi – Drama – French songwriter Alice Vannoorenberghe – mercifully often shortened to just “Alice Vanor” – performs with several session musicians as Alice et Moi. And they’re good. “Je suis fan” (below) sounds like the soundtrack for a cool montage from Killing Eve.  “Mamman m’a dit” is just cool, chill Europop. There’s much to love here, and the thing is, Alice have released an EP and a few singles, so it’s easy to forget that this is a debut LP. She’s proven she can write singles, and this proves she can write a full album. So what’s next? I expect big things from this woman!

6) Videoclub – Euphories – So,  one thing about French synthpop is that… it’s mostly popular in France. So, anything you can find out about these bands is in French. But then, there are just some bands that lack any kind of media following. So I’m told that Videoclub is French duo, formed in 2018 in Nantes by Adèle Castillon and Matthieu Reynaud. They appear to be very young. But the band’s official Insta account seems to feature Castillon almost exclusively, so maybe it’s mostly just her? I dunno. What I do know is that this is good synthpop. It’s not an album I played endlessly… but it’s an album I kept coming back to over and over again throughout the year, finding new songs to love: “Amour plastique”, “Roi”, “Enfance 80”, “SMS”… there are lots of good songs here!

5) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift – Hollie Kenniff is the “wife” portion of the husband & wife duo that make up my favorite band, Mint Julep (husband Keith also releases music under the names Helios and Goldmund). Hollie, an industrial music fan as a teen, has turned to the ambient side of things, making several gentle, lovely albums such as this. It’s good for what ails ya – if you need to sleep or relax, or just need 5 damn minutes to yourself as you drive to the store, Hollie (and this album) have you covered. Or you can do what I do and bring your Bluetooth headphones with you and make Walmart bearable! Seriously – this is a good album, it’s just something you might not listen to every day.

4) Flunk – History of Everything Ever – Let’s not kid ourselves here. Flunk is chill-out music, nothing more, nothing less. They’re not here to rock you like a hurricane or rave on like circa 1998 Paul Oakenfold. They’re something you put on at a gathering for a hip coffee shop-type atmosphere. This might sound dismissive, but it’s not. I’m just telling you exactly what Flunk is. The opening track – “Down Here/Moon Above” is really insanely great. So is the next track, “Fingertips”, which evokes the carefree Emilíana Torrini of “Unemployed in  Summertime” (which, from me, is a compliment of the highest order). From then on, it gets mellower and mellower. “Midsummer”, “Pullover” and “Fate (Or Coincidence)” are all great songs, but nothing to get the dance floor shaking. But wait – there’s more! The cover of “Ashes to Ashes” on this album is both stripped-down Flunk at their best, but is also over the top in its own lovely way. Also, a hat tip to lead singer Anja Øyen Vister, who officially became “Anja Øyen Vister, MD” this year.

3) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World – I was immediately sucked into the world of Mag Bay, but I just really couldn’t figure out why. Then I read a review of this album that made it all click: “[Magdalena Bay’s] fuzzy, rococo synthpop confections have a magic power: They sound like whatever you grew up with, whenever that was”. That is SO SPOT ON! Anyone who grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s can find something to love here, and it all lives together in the slightly off-kilter world Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin have created. Sometimes it’s a bit on the nose (The opening song? “The End”. The closing song? “The Beginning”!). But let’s not pretend that “Secrets (Your Fire)”, “Chaeri” and “Hysterical Us” aren’t straight-up bangers. I think what’s even more impressive here is that Mag Bay actually delivered a great album, despite of the near-constant hype of the Indie Blogosphere. It would have been easy for the band to just throw out whatever knowing Gorilla vs Bear was going to praise it to the heavens regardless. But they didn’t let us down! Awesome!

2) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – So… remember a decade ago, when the cool thing was pop songs that had been slowed down, like, 800 percent and sounded like some weird ambient track? Well, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley – author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé – was working on another book during the COVID lockdown, and would play these “3 hour version of Harry Styles’ ‘Golden’ slowed down 800%” videos on YouTube, and he came up with the idea of making an album that relied heavily on that sort of sound. But it would be about memory, human memory. It would be a trip back to the 90s with slowed-down songs and samples. It was about looking back on your youth as your own unreliable narrator. And, according to many reviewers, they hit the nail on the head. Like, on a genius level. Problem for me is, I didn’t grow up in England in the 90s, so I can’t relate. All the clever sampling is lost on me. So while I can see this is a hazy trip down memory lane and can appreciate it at some level, the samples and songs that are supposed to evoke this viscerally just don’t trigger anything in me. Although I really like the album (it’s #2 on my list, after all), I also lament that “Pond House” might be the peppiest, most “radio-friendly” track on the album. This generally isn’t something you can throw on at a party. Unless it’s a very specific type of party.

1) Mint Julep – In a Deep & Dreamless Sleep – Congratulations to Mint Julep for becoming my new favorite band and by being the first band on these annual lists with back-to-back albums of the year! And honestly, I know I have a flair for the dramatic at times, but I genuinely don’t know what to say. Earlier this winter I posted this on Facebook, about the first time I heard Cocteau Twins “Lorelei”:

It was gray and misty and drizzly that fall afternoon, and chilly enough to need a jacket… in this case, my sexy 80s maroon and silver Nike windbreaker. There were a couple big empty lots near my house with tall grass and gentle hills that, in my teenage mind, I could combine with the mist and drizzle to imagine that I was in Scotland somewhere.
And then track 8 came on. And it was like getting hit upside the head with a 2×4′ of goosebumps and bells and Australian birds and drum machines and angels singing. It was music like nothing I’d ever even IMAGINED could exist before. It was like being shot head-first out of a cannon, and it fundamentally rewired my brain as to what “music” could be.
Mint Julep manages to do the same thing to me, 35 years later. There’s just this feel to their music. They don’t “sound like” Cocteau Twins or Clan of Xymox or This Mortal Coil… yet they’re so adjacent to those acts. I mean, just listen to this and tell me it doesn’t have “1980s 4AD record” in its DNA:

Out of the gate, Mint Julep is entirely capable of making some of the most beautiful music ever. It’s all so light and delicate and fragile. “Gossamer”, if you want the 50 cent word. But even when they’re not intending to fly at 80,000 feet, there’s this:

One of their great talents is taking some old 80s-style keyboard riff and artfully drowning it in layer after layer of sound, creating a tiny – but perfect –  gem, a hundred-layer cake of sound. An emotional whirlwind. Like another of my favorite bands – the apparently moribund Postiljonen – Mint Julep also have a knack for making music that’s somehow deeply nostalgic, even if you’ve never heard it before.

I won’t say the album’s perfect. I don’t know why, but I feel like a couple songs should be switched in order (“Lure” and “Longboat Drift” for one). But for all intents and purposes, Mint Julep are my favorite new band, so I’m not going to see any flaws in them. I’m a smitten kitten, what else do you want me to say… other than to hang on, because they have another new album coming out soon!

Honorable Mentions

Brijean – Feelings

Charles – Let’s Start a Family Tonight

Clio – L’amour hélas

Drug Store Romeos – The World Within Our Bedrooms

Hoshi – Étoile flippante

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation

Ladyhawke – Time Flies

Men I Trust – Untourable Album

Part-Time Friends – Weddings and Funerals

Requin Chagrin – Bye Bye Baby

EPs, and Other Albums of Note

Bon Entendeur – Minuit
Clara Luciani – Coeur
Coeur de Pirate – Perséides
Hante. – Morning Tsunami
Joon – Dream Again
Somegirl – Both Sharp And Sweet
You, Nothing – Lonely // Lovely
Angèle – Nonante-Cinq (too new to include!)

Leathers – “Reckless” (EP)
Genoux Verner – “Impair” (EP)

Song of the Year

Minimal Schlager’s “FMB” just grabbed a hold of me this year and refused to let go. It is, in many ways, the perfect pop song, and even has a shout-out to Cocteau Twins in it. What’s not to love about this song?

Last.fm Stuff

All data scraped on 12/29/2021.

Overall albums of the year from 01/01/2021 to 12/29/2021, with release year and annual play count:

1) Empathy Test– Monsters (2020, 1168)
2) Mint Julep – Broken Devotion (2016, 1085)
3) Mint Julep – In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep (2021, 732)
4) Hoshi – Étoile flippante (2021, 654)
5) Kraków Loves Adana – Darkest Dreams (2020, 461)
6) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift (2021, 421)
7) You Drive – You Drive (2018, 371)
8) Hollie Kenniff – The Gathering Dawn (2019, 350)
9) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (2021, 311)
10) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies (2020, 300)

Adjusted albums of the year, 2021 releases only:

1) Mint Julep – In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep (732)
2) Hoshi – Étoile flippante (654)
3) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift (421)
4) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (311)
5) Munya – Voyage to Mars (228)
6) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (211)
7) Videoclub – Euphories (210)
8) Clara Luciani – Cœur (208)
9) Brijean – Feelings (184)
10) Theodora – Too Much For One Heart (141)

Total plays per artist, 2021

1) Mint Julep (2,690)
2) Empathy Test (1,177)
3) Holllie Kenniff (797)
4) Minimal Schlager (757)
5) Hoshi (755)
6) Cannons (672)
7) Kraków Loves Adana (590)
8) Saint Etienne (573)
9) R. Missing (530)
10) Kid Francescoli (525)

Total plays per artist since joining Last.fm in 2010

1) Marsheaux (5,866)
2) Saint Etienne (3,691)
3) Mint Julep (3,684)
4) You Drive (3,265)
5) Chromatics (2,096)
6) CHVRCHES (1,965)
7) Desire (1,888)
8) Purity Ring (1,830)
9) Burning Peacocks (1,734)
10) Postiljonen (1,723)

Previous “Albums of the Year”

2020: Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies
2019:
Chromatics – Closer to Grey
2018:
You Drive – You Drive
2017: Saint Etienne – Home Counties
2016: Marsheaux – Ath.Lon
2015: Purity Ring – Another Eternity
2014: La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
2013: Marsheaux – Inhale
2012: Beach House – Bloom
2011: The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
2010: Katy Perry – Teenage Dream*

* – There was no single choice for “best album” in 2010; the article simply listed my favorite albums that year in no particular order. The choice of Teenage Dream was made ex post facto from that list of albums.

My Top Albums Of 2020

2020 might have sucked for most things, but it was actually a damn good year for music! Every year it seems like I complain that either there was not enough good music released – so had to scrape together ten albums – or too much was released and I’m forced to make hard choices to whittle the list to just ten.

2020 was definitely the latter.

Before I begin, let me do something I’ve never done on a “best album” post: explain my criteria. Although any album is technically eligible for the list, I strongly discourage “greatest hits” albums and compilations of any kind. I mean, the whole idea is an album as a single cohesive collection of music. For that reason, live albums are discouraged, too. Albums are also subject to the “one-hit wonder rule”: strongly discouraged from my list if the only reason they rank so highly on my Last.fm chart is because of a single song. Georgia’s Seeking Thrills album was #2 or #3 on my 2019 Last.fm album charts due to “About Work the Dancefloor”, a song I listened to hundreds of times. But I’ve only listened to the full album once, and I don’t think I’ve listened to any other song off that album more than twice. Lastly, I’ve decided that, going forward. EPs will be allowed on the “Honorable Mentions” chart, but singles will not, no matter how many times I listen to them that year.  My list, my rules.

As always, below are my ten favorite albums of 2020. The list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit. After the list is a new item: “Song of the Year”. Soon, I’ll do a separate post of some albums I’ve discovered this year but were released in years past. There’s also the list of few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.

My Top Albums of 2020

10) Washed Out – Purple Noon – Perry, Georgia’s Ernest Greene made a huge splash on the chillwave scene – hell, he was the King of Chillwave – even before his first album, Within and Without, was released in 2011. Which makes it all the sadder that this album is… “just OK”. I mean, some songs – like the opener, “Too Late”, or the album’s first single, “Time to Walk Away” – are as good as anything Washed Out’s ever released. Yet, others, like “Face Up”, don’t seem “chill” so much as “lifeless”. Overall, this album seems more like a collection of outtakes from 2013’s Paracosm than the evolutionary growth of 2017’s awesome Mister Mellow. Even worse, it sounds like Greene really tried… and this is the best he could come up with.

9) Sylvan Esso – Free Love – Speaking of, the longer Sylvan Esso goes on, the less I like them. And I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think a big part of it is that Sylvan Esso has taken the place of Björk in the sense of “the songs I like, I really like, but the songs I don’t like I really hate” of my music world. On this album, “Ferris Wheel” is pretty damn fantastic… but “Ring” and “Rooftop Dancing” make me wanna punch somebody. We’ll see how the next album goes, eh?

8) The Sounds – Things We Do For Love – The Sounds are a Swedish rock band – kinda New Wavy, but closer to the West Coast New Wave like Berlin and Missing Persons – with a healthy dash of Blondie tossed in for good measure –  than most of the synth-heavy bands I listen to. Yet despite being together for 22 years, they’ve only released 6 albums. So when a new one comes out, you pay attention! I’ll admit that the singles are the big draw here – “Safe and Sound” and the title track, “Things We Do For Love” – are way better than much of the filler down album. Call me crazy, but “Bonnie and Clyde” sounds like a Katy Perry reject song (fight me). Although there are occasional gems like “Hollow”. This is just a good working-class band that really hits when they hit:

7) Kid Francescoli – Lovers – Marseille-based Mathieu Hocine – performing as Kid Francescoli – has released three albums… and all three have landed on my “best of” list: 2014’s With Julia, 2016’s Play Me Again, and 2020’s Lovers. It’s not hard to see why: his lovely melodies and intimate lyrics caress your soul like a glove! The English-language songs on the album all hit it out of the park, while the Italian and French songs may or may not be something you’re interested in. I don’t speak a word of French, but have fallen in love with lots of French-language pop… but none of Hocine’s songs, oddly… until this album’s “Ces deux-là”! It sounds like something sexy people in Barcelona would listen to.

6) Linea Aspera – Linea Aspera II – Back when I lived in Atlanta, Album 88 used to play Linea Aspera all the damn time… and I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Well, the band is back after a 7 year break… and now I get it! This is some tight darkwave stuff that mages to call back to their earlier work, yet isn’t beholden to it,  and is fully modern. It gets a bit samey, even for a band like this, though.

5) Empathy Test – Monsters – For some reason, Empathy Test reminds me of a cross between Massive Attack and a band like Delerium or Enigma… only without the… cheese, I guess? Check out “Monsters”, the album opener, below. I love that it’s so in your face, the way it tells you all you need to know about the band, in the same way Purity Ring’s “heartsigh” defines another eternity. And the album’s closer, “Love Moves”, is a song I’ve fallen deeply in love with. But there’s more: in fact, there are few bad songs on this album at all. “Empty Handed”, “Making Worlds”, and “Skin” are all fantastic tunes.

4) Kraków Loves Adana – Darkest Dreams –  Freiburg, Germany’s Kraków Loves Adana have toiled away in relative obscurity… until they were picked up by Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label, instantly making them “a thing” with Chromatics fans everywhere. But after releasing a couple fantastic singles on IDIB, Kraków went their own way. The result is Darkest Dreams, admittedly the first album of theirs I’ve heard, but a worthy one all the same. For people who love Europeans with Synthesizers, tracks like “Don’t Ask Why”, “Love Isn’t Dead” and “The Ocean Between Us” are straight fire. But “Faded to Black” just bangs so hard… I don’t even know where to begin:

3) Purity Ring – WOMB– It would be impossible to top 2015’s another eternity and (spoiler alert!) WOMB doesn’t. That doesn’t mean WOMB is bad, though. As a Purity Ring thing, it’s solid. I didn’t like the opener (“rubyinsides”) nearly as much as “heartsigh”, but it’s grown on me over time. And yes, Megan James is still as into viscera as always (some people call this kind of music “witch house”, but I refuse to use that term in the presence of another sdult). The album picks up with “pink lightning”, the fantastic “peacefall” (see below) and “i like the devil”. And, of course, the album ends with an insanely great song (keep reading). It’s not that anything on this album is bad. It’s all pretty good, actually. But Purity Ring set expectations sky high with their previous album – my “Album of the Year” for 2015, and easily in my top 5 of the last 20 years – that this disc had nowhere to go but down.

2) Young Ejecta – Ride Lonesome – Young Ejecta are Neon Indian’s Leanne Macomber on vocals and producer Joel Fordare… doing everything else. They’ve been around since 2013, and have had several good singles over the years, like “Build a Fire” and “It’s Only Love”. But 2020’s Ride Lonesome is the first album of theirs that make me stop to listen.  NYC synthpop it is, but it’s bubbly and addictive, like soda pop. The opener “Crayon Cactus” just bops along into the ethereal vocals of “Screen Guru”. “Four Corners” was all over my Spotify playlists, then there’s “9 to 5”, and we hit the album’s midpoint with the fantastic “Call My Name” (below). The second half is almost as strong – I can live without “Can I Dance With You”, but it’s all generally good stuff. I don’t know why, but this album really impressed me, and has stuck around in my memory this year.

1) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies – Mint Julep are a husband-and-wife duo from Boston, Hollie and Keith Kenniff. They make dramatic (but not over-the-top) music. In spirit, they remind me of an early Clan of Xymox (assuming Clan of Xymox formed in 2007), even if the music doesn’t always sound as such. All their albums are fantastic – 2011’s Save Your Season and (especially) Broken Devotion, which hit #2 on my Best Albums of 2016 list. So it’s not surprising that 2020’s Stray Fantasies would end up here. And I think the reason for that is… it was just around all year long. I mean that: the album came out on January 30, 2020, and where a lot of other 2020 albums burned brightly but quickly faded, this album stuck around all year. A big part of it is that I just love the hazy, dazy gauze of this band’s sound. But it’s more than just that. I mean, it is that – wispy, thin, light, airy. But something about Mint Julep’s sound is, like the Swedish group Postiljonen, nostalgic… even if you’ve never heard their music before. There’s this cinematic quality it has, where you hear it and instantly want it to be the soundtrack of your teenage memories. Give ’em a listen:

As I say, I maybe didn’t listen to this album ALL THE TIME. And only one song (“Just for Today”) really became one of my patented  “song I listen to 800 times a year” hits, but the album was there, man. Through good times and bad, the beauty of their music is matchless.

As a bonus, here’s Mint Julep’s cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise”, a track from Broken Devotion:

Continue reading “My Top Albums Of 2020”

My Top Albums Of 2019

Wow… so you’re probably wondering why it took me until almost April to get out an article that I normally do in December, or, at worst, the first week of January.

To be perfectly honest, it’s because 2018 was such a ridiculously strong year for music that it didn’t really stop until late 2019 for me. The top 4 albums from 2018 – Pastel Ghost’s Ethereality , The Perfect Kiss’ Filter, Therapie TAXI’s ass-kicking debut Hit Sale, and You Drive’s eponymous debut – yeah, I just kept on listening to them non-stop until last November. As of Thanksgiving, there was only one 2019 album in my Top 20 “most listened to” stats. It took until the past couple of weeks that I found ten 2019 albums to make a list!

As always, below are my ten favorite albums of 2019. The list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit, perhaps even a bit more than usual. After the list are a few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.

My Top Albums of 2019

10) Wy – Softie – This Swedish band’s second album is a “solid, if a bit samey” experience. They’re more of a straightforward pop band than the lovely dream pop of Postiljonen and similar Swedish bands I’ve cottoned to in the past. But that’s OK – I love them anyway! It’s a good album to listen to on a sunny day at the beach with an ice cold beer:

9) Clairo – Immunity – 21 year-old Claire Cottrill shows lots of promise with this debut album… if she can resist the temptation to let producers have their way with her music. I agree with Pitchfork that there are many songs on this disc that have been tweaked within an inch of their lives, and that any more edits would ruin them. Still, “Bags” is a great tune, and I’ll be sure to stick around for her next album!

8) Graveyard Club – Goodnight Paradise – They make cool music in Minneapolis? Who knew? Just kidding, folks. Graveyard Club is a strange mix of 80s-style pop and Perry Como style crooning, as evidenced by the album’s lead-off single, “Witchcraft”. But that’s actually one of my least favorite tracks on the album: “Red Roses” and “William”, for example, are much better songs that the slightly gimmicky “Witchcraft”. But it’s an entertaining album, one of those where you kind of get lost and suddenly realize you’re on track 12.

7) Carla dal Forno – Look Up Sharp – This Australian lady is a singer, composer and music experimentalist, not unlike Julianna Barwick or Julia Holter. And this isn’t my first go-round with her, either: 2016’s You Know What It’s Like just barely missed the cut for an honorable mention in that year’s “best of”. Look Up Sharp is more of her swirly, dreamy, hazy music she’s known for. She doesn’t make “bangers”, but then she doesn’t flirt with ambient music as much as, say Barwick, either. So maybe something you won’t throw on during a rager, but something excellent for reading a book on a rainy day!

6) Electric Youth – Memory Emotion – Toronto-based Electric Youth are yet another in the seemingly endless supply of synthpop duos. They’re not the best, or the most original, or most memorable… but they’re nice. This is a really good album, even if it doesn’t break any new ground or won’t set the world on fire. Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick have created a tight, yet dreamy sound that’s certainly a winner!

5) Clio – Déjà Venise – Clio is a French singer-songwriter, originally from Besançon, now living in Paris. Her music is infectious, each song a pretty little gem just waiting to be discovered. It’s also one of those albums where your “favorite song” keeps changing. First it was the hit “T’as vu” (below). Then it was “Amoureuse”, a classic French-style pop song. Then it was the title track. No matter which you settle on, they’re all good!

4) Minuit Machine – Infrarouge – Last year I discovered the French darkwave band Minuit Machine via their banger “Everlasting” from their 2015 album Violent Rains. 2019’s Infrarouge doesn’t really cover any new ground… but then, it doesn’t really need to. The opening track, “Chaos” gently draws you in to their beautiful, yet arctic world. And yeah, sure, lines like “The more I try, the less I exist” seem a bit sophomoric to my almost 50 year-old ears. It sounds like something “deep” I woulda scribbled in my journal as a teen. But the music – and the vibe – is still fun. There’s something about this band – not just the lyrics – that screams 80s angst, and in a good way. If you listen to just one of their tunes, make it “Everlasting” or the remastered version of their 2013 tune “I am a Boy” on this album.

3) Tempers – Private Life – This is a band I know very little about. They’re based in New York City and have two members: Jasmine Golestaneh and Eddie Cooper. Golestaneh was allegedly born in Florida and grew up in London (allegedly, because all the information I can find on her seems highly exaggerated). Whatever the case, Tempers’ newest album is one of those that snuck up on me. I didn’t notice it until much later, but I added a couple of their tunes to my “Discovered” playlist in Spotify. I guess because of that, the song “Leonard Cohen Afterworld” showed up in a Discover Weekly playlist. And from there I was hooked. And that’s weird.

2) Cannons – Shadows – Cannons are a band from the worst place on Earth: Los Angeles. But don’t it against them: they make really good music! It’s kind of a slightly funky synthpop affair with lead singer Michelle Joy’s waify vocals on top. Their cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is all the introduction you need, but I think it’s unfair to judge them on a cover song. I love almost every song I’ve heard from them, from 2017’s Night Drive to 2018’s In a Heartbeat EP to 2019’s Shadows. Shadows kicks off with “Baby”, a good preview of what’s to come. But then there’s “Fire for You”, an infectious low-key banger that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Then ya got “Talk Talk” (below), and next thing ya know the album’s over and you’re like “awwww, man! Is that IT? There should be MORE!” Seriously – check it out!

1) Chromatics – Closer to Grey – So see, here’s the thing: this album came out on October 1, and I liked it. Well, I don’t like the “The Sound of Silence” cover that opens the album, but that’s because I hate Simon & Garfunkel (having said that, Chromatics cover of “I’m on Fire” made me like a BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN song, so that could change). Anyway, the point is: I was looking through my Last.fm stats in December and was like “well crap… Closer to Grey is the only 2019 album in my Top 20 listened to albums”. So I kind of figured this one would win Album of the Year by default. And that bugged me. In 2018, my Top 4 albums duked it out in a fight to the death. You Drive ended up as album of the year, and deserved it. So as much as I like Chromatics, would they win album of the year just by showing up?

Well, yeah. A big part of it was seeing Chromatics (and Desire, and In Mirrors) live in Atlanta last May. That was absolutely an all-time Top 10 concert, maybe even a Top 5 show. I’ve got a framed picture of Megan Louise I took at the show on my wall. 2019 was, in so many ways, “The Year of Chromatics”. And, truth be told, no other album was really better than Closer to Grey last year.

It’s stunning at how often Johnny Jewel hits it out of the park. Between Chromatics, Desire, Glass Candy and all the other bands he works with, and all the soundtracks and solo projects… and the remixes he does, you wonder how he finds time to sleep!

I genuinely recommend heading over to Jewel’s record label site – Italians Do It Better – and picking up a copy of Closer to Grey, and all of the other fantastic tunes they have there. As far as I know, digital versions of all releases are available in WAV or MP3 format for $1, and they even accept Amazon Pay if you don’t want to give your credit card number to an unknown website.  They even have the massive, 47-track “Deluxe Edition” of Closer to Grey for ONE MEASLY DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR! That’s 2.12¢ PER SONG! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? DO IT NOW!

Honorable Mentions

With the usual stipulation that “EPs and singles aren’t albums”:

Bon Entendeur – Aller-retour
Trevor Something – Bots Don’t Cry
Delphine Dupont – French Pop Attitude
L’Impératrice – Matahari
whenyoung – Reasons To Dream
Anteros – When We Land
Mexico City Blondes – Blush
Methyl Ethel – Triage
Pure Bathing Culture – Night Pass

Continue reading “My Top Albums Of 2019”

A BandsInTown Hack

BandsInTown is a service that tracks bands on tour. You download the app for iOS or Android, sign up, then enter a list of bands you want to track (or give the site permission to scan your Spotify or Apple Music\iTunes libraries). That’s it! You’ll get notifications (and emails, if you choose) any time a band you like is playing a venue near you!

There’s one problem with the service, though, and that’s that you can only choose one “home city”.  The concert scene in Charlotte has come a long way in the past 20 years, but if your music tastes could be described as “cutting edge” or “up and coming”, you may find yourself driving to Atlanta or Chapel Hill more often than you’d care to admit. So you can switch your BandsInTown home city to Atlanta… but then you miss out on local shows.  What to do if you’re in a situation like this?

While BandsInTown only allows you to have one home city, the app will allow you to expand your search radius to 150 miles. So in my case, I chose Greenville, SC as my home city and expanded the search radius to the max 150 miles. This way it covers Charlotte, Atlanta, Athens and Asheville:

Bands in Town

Bands in Town
(click to enlarge)

Hope this helps!

Spotify vs. Apple Music

So… back in June Spotify released a new version of their Android software. At first glace, it didn’t look so bad – mostly a huge PODCASTS tab added to the “My Library” page. Which makes sense: Spotify is pushing podcasts hard because they don’t have to pay royalties when you listen to them like they do with music.

Come to find out, it was way worse than that.

A quick refresher: in Spotify when you “save” an album to your library, you’re basically just saving a link to the music files on Spotify’s servers, like a browser bookmark. And Spotify’s Android app used to have a “My Library” page which had tabs for “Artists”, “Albums” and “Songs”. So if you saved 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe album to your library, “10,000 Maniacs” would then appear under “Artists”, In My Tribe would appear under “Albums”, and the songs from that album would appear under “Songs”. If you deleted the album, those entries went away. Simple, yes?

Spotify also has a “follow artist” feature. When I first joined the service in 2015, following an artist was how you got notifications that they had released new music. But Spotify’s notification system never worked that well, so they removed most of it. But they kept the “follow artist” feature, which folks in the Spotify Community said was for “shaping” the music in Spotify’s playlists. If the artists in your Discover Weekly or Release Radar playlists weren’t to your liking, follow a bunch of your favorite artists, they said, and your playlists would get better. And that seemed to be true.

So – here’s what Spotify’s June update changed:

– The “Artists” tab now only shows artists you follow. So if you add 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe to your library now, 10,000 Maniacs no longer appears under “Artists” unless you specifically tapped the “Follow” (or “Heart” icon), too. It’s effectively as if your iTunes install from 2008 suddenly lost the ability to sort music by artist, as if artist information was completely gone. There are lots of people who had been with Spotify since the service rolled out here in 2008 who never used the “follow” feature… and they were pissed that Spotify, without telling anyone or giving any advance notice, emptied their “Artists” lists. These poor folks had to recreate their “Artists” lists by hand. It took some people days.

– The “Albums” tab still works as expected, but for reasons only God and Spotify’s developers know, they removed the alphabetical scroll bar. It used to be, if you wanted to listen to U2’s Zooropa, you’d tap “My Library”, “Albums” and “Z” to get pretty close. Now you have to scroll all the way down manually, like a medieval French peasant!

– It also used to be possible to save only some tracks from an album. So if you liked the sound of The Cars’ remastered Candy-O album but didn’t want all the demos and outtakes that come on that version, you could save just the album tracks but not the outtakes. No more – it’s all or nothing now.

– The “Songs” tab went away entirely, replaced by a “Liked Songs” playlist with all the songs from your old “Songs” tab, but now in totally random order! And since the songs are now in random order there’s no use for an alphabetical scroll bar, so they got rid of that, too. So instead of tapping “W” to get to Roxy Music’s “While My Heart is Still Beating” I now have to scroll through 3,719 songs listed in random order until I find it. Terrific!

– They also moved the “Recently Played” list from the My Library page to the Home page, and they removed all actions from it aside from “open”. It used to be that you could tap on an album or playlist in Recently Played and several options would appear: “Remove from this list” was great for hiding any trace of your secret Def Leppard obsession, “Queue” or whatever. By moving and neutering it, Spotify effectively got rid of a feature that tons of people used.

*     *     *

Needless to say, many users were pissed about all this. I was pissed enough to give Apple Music a try.

So… signing up for Apple Music seemed simple enough. But then I installed and opened the latest version of iTunes on my laptop… and now what? Spotify is a stand-alone app. You open it, and there’s Spotify. Apple Music is… buried somewhere in iTunes? Even though I was signed in to iTunes with the correct account there were no “Hey, we see you signed up for Apple Music! Here’s how it works in iTunes for Windows” prompt. Nothing. It took a few clicks, but I found it. And when I did, the selection was as expected. I looked through several of my more “problematic” artists, and Apple Music seemed to have the same library holes Spotify does: early Saint Etienne and Dramarama albums were missing from Apple Music, too.

Continue reading “Spotify vs. Apple Music”