June 17, 2017

Top 15 LPs of the first half of 2017 and the best 15 still to come

This is a follow-up to my January post in which I predicted the top 30 albums that would be released in 2017.

Top 15 albums of 2017 released as of June 17:

1. Allison Crutchfield- Tourist in this Town

2. Eisley- I'm Only Dreaming

3. The New Pornographers- Whiteout Conditions

4. Overcoats- Young

5. Spoon- Hot Thoughts

6. Charly Bliss- Guppy

7. Big Thief- Capacity

8. The Shins- Heartworms

9. football, etc.- Corner

10. Cayetana- New Kind of Normal

11. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister- Planetarium

12. Jesca Hoop- Memories are Now

13. Wild Pink- Wild Pink

14. David Bazan- Care

15. Deb Talan- Lucky Girl

Top 15 albums that will definitively be released in the second half of 2017:

1. Wolf Alice- Visions of a Life

2. Waxahatchee- Out in the Storm

3. Manchester Orchestra- A Black Mile to the Surface

4. Rainer Maria- S/T

5. Jeremy Enigk- Ghosts

6. Stavesacre- MCMXCV
(first track from crowd-funded release has been shared with supporters only)

7. Mogwai- Every Country's Sun

8. Lo Tom- S/T

9. HAIM- Something to Tell You

10. that dog.- TBA

11. Arcade Fire- Everything Now

12. Stars- TBA

13. Emily Haines- Choir of the Mind

14. Ratboys- GN

15. Fleming and John- TBA

June 7, 2017

New songs to listen to this week and one to avoid

Wolf Alice

No music from it yet, but Wolf Alice has a new album coming very soon and they are previewing one track at a time through lyrics and images on their social media accounts. In January I wrote that a new Wolf Alice album had the potential to be my #1 album of the year.


 Rainer Maria  


Prophets of Rage (Warning: explicit lyrics. But the song is important in today's political environment and the word, while offensive, is used appropriately.)

April 18, 2017

It Came Out Magical; Top 25 New Pornographers Songs

I didn't plan to write this list, but the New Pornographer's new album inspired me and I have been listening to the band non-stop for the last two weeks. Narrowing their catalog to 25 songs was incredibly difficult and time consuming, but I will keep the commentary short and simple with just a few embedded live videos (one from each of the seven LPs).

I did not include any Dan Bejar songs. He has some great ones ("Myriad Harbor" is my favorite), but I greatly prefer Carl Newman compositions. Also, after seeing the band live Bejar's antics and overall perceived lack of interest in the band was a turnoff. Specially, he was the only member of the band who did not play on every song. He would come out on stage for his songs, but then go backstage in between. Him having no songs on the latest album "Whiteout Conditions" doesn't bother me one bit.

Final comment: I adore Neko Case, so any song she sings on automatically reaches another level for me.

Top 25 New Pornographers Songs:
25. "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" from 2000's Mass Romantic
24. "We've Been Here Before" from 2017's Whiteout Conditions
23. "My Shepherd" from 2010's Together
22. "Marching Orders" from 2014's Brill Bruisers
21. "The Electric Version" from 2003's Electric Version
20. "Mass Romantic" from 2000's Mass Romantic

19. "Whiteout Conditions" from 2017's Whiteout Conditions
18. "Use It" from 2005's Twin Cinema
17. "Unguided" from 2007's Challengers
16. "Moves" from 2010's Together
15. "The Jessica Numbers" from 2005's Twin Cinema
14. "Go Places" from 2007's Challengers
13. "High Ticket Attractions" from 2017's Whiteout Conditions
12. "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" from 2010's Together

11. "These Are The Fables" from 2005's Twin Cinema
10. "Challengers" from 2007's Challengers

9. "All For Swinging You Around" from 2003's Electric Version
8. "This Is The World Of Theater" from 2017's Whiteout Conditions

7. "From Blown Speakers" from 2003's Electric Version

6. "Letter From An Occupant" from 2000's Mass Romantic
5. "Champions of Red Wine" from 2014's Brill Bruisers
4. "Crash Years" from 2010's Together

3. "Adventures in Solitude" from 2007's Challengers
2. "Brill Bruisers" from 2014's Brill Bruisers
1. "The Bleeding Heart Show" from 2005's Twin Cinema

The New Pornographers albums ranked:
1. Challengers (I know I am in the minority here)
2. Twin Cinema
3. Brill Bruisers
4. Together
5. Whiteout Conditions
6. Electric Version
7. Mass Romantic

April 5, 2017

New music to listen to this week: New Pornographers, Chastity Belt, Big Thief, Charly Bliss...

Lots of great new stuff streaming this week! First of all, NPR is debuting the new album from the New Pornographers. As this excellent Paste review describes, it is more catchy, poppy goodness from the band. Although I do miss the "less accessible and at times gratuitously weird" songs the band has released in the past.

Secondly, Chastity Belt is streaming two new songs from their upcoming June LP. They have been around for awhile, but I just heard them for the first time last night.

Big Thief, whose debut was my #14 album of 2016, already has their second LP to be released in May, and the first track is beautiful:

Charly Bliss debuted a video for another new song from their upcoming Barsuk LP. As a father of two little girls, this video hits very close to home:

Not a new song, but Thrice debuted a stunning video for "Hurricane" yesterday:

Finally, 2017 began with two terrific fundraising campaigns with exclusive songs from nearly 200 different artists. Our First 100 Days is highlighted by new Speedy Ortiz, Rob Crow, Julien Baker, etc. All 100 songs for a $30 donation...

In the second campaign the only way to see and hear all the Rough Trade songs is to subscribe, but they do have a few streaming for free. The best songs though are new tracks from Mates of State and Nada Surf, which can't be listened except through making a donation.

March 28, 2017

For the Love of Guitar; Top 25 Aaron Sprinkle songs

Aaron Sprinkle released his 5th solo album last Friday, titled Real Life. A couple days and a half a dozen full listens in, I sadly don't like it--at all. It's a strange situation I find myself in, because I am one of the few who has been listening to and loving Aaron Sprinkle for now a full 25 years, and have always liked his work. I knew him as a guitarist first, then frontman, then solo artist, then producer. From what I can tell, most of his fans in 2017 discovered him as a producer first, which led to finding his solo work, and then his other bands. Also, from what I can tell, most of his fans in 2017 are digging Real Life, unlike me.

I hope Real Life grows on me, but even if if doesn't, I have 25 years worth of Aaron Sprinkle songs I adore. If you add up his solo albums and his bands Poor Old Lu, Rose Blossom Punch, Fair, and Blank Books, I have well over 200 songs Aaron has written or co-written in my library. Much of my dislike for this new album is stylistic, because I am a primarily a fan of guitar-based rock and folk songs, and generally don't enjoy much electronic programming and synthesizers, which is what this album is written around. I can't place it on style alone though, because I enjoy David Bazan's most recent two electronic LPs (also with a guitar-based background I prefer), and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Chvrches.

Paste says, "On some tracks, Sprinkle even plays around with his own vocals, running them through spaciously echoed or mechanized effects until they become a new component to playfully employ against their original source. It’s rare to see so much growth and transformation from an artist contained within one single album, but that engaged struggle for forward progress is what real life and Real Life is all about." I don't see this so much as growth, but more as a misstep or failed experiment. If you love electro-pop and dance music however, your feelings might be the opposite of mine.

Also, I love Aaron's vocals so much, and he is able to do so many things with them. His voice is multiple-dimensioned, and depending on what part of his catalog you listen to, it can sound radically different, sometimes within the context of a single song. Also, his harmonizing with himself over the years is awesome and powerful. But with Real Life, the ways he has processed and manipulated his vocals I find irritating and bothersome.

As I dive into Aaron's impressive discography and catalog to narrow it to 25 songs, you won't find any more mentions of Real Life. My final word on that album is that it takes someone with a good sense of humor to use a photo of one as a teenager on an album cover when in your 40's; so props to Aaron for allowing us to laugh with him. I can't even pick my favorite song from Real Life yet, but the one I'll embed here includes vocals from frequent collaborator Sherri Dupree-Bemis (frontwoman of Eisley, who I adore):

My love for Aaron Sprinkle's music of course began with Poor Old Lu, who is my co-favorite band of all time. Aaron played guitar and sang bgv's for Poor Old Lu, a very collaborative band in which the songs were co-written by he, his brother and drummer Jesse Sprinkle, bass player Nick Barber, and lead singer Scott Hunter. I could very easily write a book about Poor Old Lu, but I won't. It is important to make clear though that as much I love Aaron's solo work and as the frontman of other bands, I love 90% of Poor Old Lu songs more than any of his stuff outside that band. (At some point I might do a Poor Old Lu top 25 list, but I would only be narrowing it down from around 60 original songs they released in about a decade).

I considered including the only Poor Old Lu song he sings lead on ("Ring True") in my top 25 list, but I am going to leave it out, because those words were written by Scott Hunter. So each of the 25 songs below the words and music (well, at least most of the music) was written by Aaron himself. I did include Poor Old Lu albums though in my top 10 LP list at the end of this post.

When Poor Old Lu first parted ways, Aaron immediately jumped in and fronted his next band, Rose Blossom Punch (which contained Lu bass player Nick Barber). When that band broke up after one LP and one EP, he recorded and released three largely acoustic solo albums in three years. A few years later Aaron then formed another rock band, Fair, which also featured Barber. When Fair parted ways after two albums Aaron began his stylistic shift; after two decades of rock Aaron's 4th solo album was his electronic pop debut, 2013's Water and Guns.

While the shift from the two Fair rock albums to the electronic pop of Water and Guns was disappointing for me, I still enjoyed it because I appreciated the experimentation. However, I didn't expect the experiment to last more than one album. Thankfully, I do look forward to more Aaron rock music, and according to his brother Jesse in a recent interview, their band Blank Books has an EP finished and ready to release. One can hear a clip of the first Blank Books song here (starting at 2:05 in Jesse's snare drum demonstration video), and it is my favorite Aaron song in a decade:

Before I jump into the top 25 my final comment is that Aaron has recorded some great covers over the years, and my favorite of those is a fun version of the Beach Boys' "I Know There's an Answer/ Hang on to your Ego".

Top 25 Aaron Sprinkle Songs:
25. "Alright" from the 2013 solo album Water and Guns
Of the 20 songs Aaron wrote for his two recent electro-pop albums, Aaron nailed it on this song. Super-catchy; you won't be able to get it out of your head. Invisible Creature did a terrific job with the packaging and cover for this album. Right now the only song from Aaron's "new era" that grabs me in any way.

24. "Wayside" from the 2010 Fair album Disappearing World
If you wished this album existed on vinyl I can tell you who to blame for it not being pressed; ME. I was in talks with Fair guitarist Erick Newbill about putting it out. They wanted to release it on vinyl, but Tooth & Nail wouldn't do it. I actually formed my own non-profit record label with assistance of a lawyer, and we had a plan that the profits from sales would go to benefit a cause. Erick and I had done all the planning and were working on the details, but I never went through because I was going to need to personally front the money, and I was unable and unwilling. At the time I was unaware of Kickstarter and crowdfunding wasn't yet "in." A year or two later I would have moved forward and used Kickstarter to raise the money needed to press the vinyl. The timing sadly wasn't right.

23. "So Discreet" from the 2000 solo album The Kindest Days
The Kindest Days is my least favorite of the the three solo albums in three years. However, I love the bookends of this album, and this is the lead track. Aaron has used piano prolifically throughout his career, but at the time this album was released, he had not (except as a sparse background instrument), so this was the first time we heard it as the primary instrument in his music. The song starts with just Aaron's voice and piano, but then explodes in the middle with bass, drums, and an electric guitar solo.

22. "The Boy Who Stopped The World" from the 2001 solo album Bareface

Comartian did an interesting video series of Aaron a few years ago; both interview segments and live performances. The video below is from this. There is also a "rare" 2003 Aaron Sprinkle live album with this same name. As much as I prefer it when Aaron is in full out rock mode, sometimes there is nothing better than just his voice and acoustic guitar.

21. "Sleepily" from the 1999 Rose Blossom Punch Sorry To Disappoint You EP
This EP is probably the rarest of all of Aaron's music, and was released very late as a CD by a random MP3 website (I am blanking on the name, and my CD is in a box on the other side of the Atlantic). The cover was the only original part of the artwork, as the rest of the packaging was generic and appeared to be the same for everything that website issued. The song "Sleepily" also appears on the only Rose Blossom Punch vinyl, a 7". I order most of my vinyl through the mail, and thankfully this is the only time in two decades I have had a record damaged in the mail; it was completely shattered. Thankfully I was able to buy another copy of it a few years ago. There is also no artwork for the 7", just a white paper sleeve covered in stamps by hand.

20. "Disappearing World" from the 2010 Fair album Disappearing World
I mentioned Erick Newbill above, and I will again, because Erick did write a lot of the music on the Fair albums. While Aaron always sings lead, Erick bgv's are prominent, as is his excellent guitar work. Erick has his own band Subways on the Sun, which is finalizing their second album, and also features the bass playing of Nick Barber. Their first is called The Honeymoon Stagecoach and was released in 2013. Erick also fronted the band Wes Dando back around the time Aaron was first doing solo albums.

19. "Haunted Church" from the 1997 Rose Blossom Punch album Ephemere
I think this may have been the "radio single" from the debut Rose Blossom Punch album. Now, whether or not it was actually played on the radio...the only thing I know for sure is that I personally played it on my radio show: the B.A.Zone on WVSU 91.1 in Birmingham, Alabama.

18. "Walking In My Sleep" from the 2010 Fair album Disappearing World
Music videos rarely impact me, and I find them largely forgettable. But this live studio recording of this song is spectacular; the camera work really bring out the best in the band. This album as a whole was largely disappointing compared to the first Fair LP, but this song is one of the highlights.

17. "In the Meantime" from the 2000 solo album The Kindest Days
Aaron sequences his albums well, and the album closers are frequently the highlights. On this solo album the closer is the strongest track on the LP. It begins with a swirling electric guitar line, adding Aaron's quiet vocal, and then becoming a fleshed-out, multilayered track highlighted by a guitar solo and unique harmonies.

16. "All In A Day's Work" from the 1999 solo album Moontraveler
Moontraveler was our introduction to quiet, contemplative Aaron Sprinkle music. This song's second half was unlike anything Aaron had ever done, with the primary instrument being chimes and then moving into a strong bridge with electric strings.

15. "Confidently Dreaming" from the 2006 Fair album The Best Worst-Case Scenario
Some of my favorite Aaron lyrics:
"...I'll take the stand and plead forgiveness
Someone put the blame on you
Desperately feeling, for confidently dreaming of you
When all you have to do is love
I won't escape the feeling, for confidently dreaming of you, my love"

14. "All That's Left Of Me" from the 2001 solo EP Really Something
The Really Something EP contained six songs, two of which are the original version (that later appeared on Bareface) and another acoustic version of the title track. Surprisingly, I never "really" liked this song that ended up as the lead track on Bareface. This EP also contained a cover of the Cure's "Letter to Elise",  a Rose Blossom Punch "cover" I discuss below (#8), and "The Patron", probably the most popular track from Bareface. The sixth and final track is "All That's Left of Me", a long acoustic track that didn't make the Bareface album. The song is simple, but I love the standalone acoustic guitar work.

13. "Sweeter Than Me" from the 2001 solo album Bareface
Bareface as a whole is much fuller and orchestrated than Aaron's first two solo albums, but this song is largely an exception with simple acoustic guitar picking and vocals. It is eventually highlighted by pedal steel and Aaron harmonizing with himself (which he does extraordinarily well).

12. "A Friend I Had" from the 1999 solo album Moontraveler
Seven or eight years into his career, this song was missing something every Aaron Sprinkle song had up until this point: drums. There is no percussion, and also no bass. So it was fairly radical at the time, being almost entirely acoustic guitar; but with multiple tracks of it at the end.

11. "Confused" from the 1997 Rose Blossom Punch album Ephemere
One of the best parts about Ephemere is Aaron's production and the use of left and right speakers. I noticed the left and right differences more on this album than ever had in my life up until this point. Ephemere is a radically different album with headphones on. On "Confused" specifically the song begins with percussion and guitar on the right, and then Aaron's vocals on the left. About 25 seconds in the rest of the instruments kick in and Aaron's vocals move right to the center.

10. "Get You Out Alive" from the 2006 Fair album The Best Worst-Case Scenario
Invisible Creature, the design firm founded and led by Don and Ryan Clark (Demon Hunter, Training for Utopia, etc.) has designed much of (maybe most of) Aaron Sprinkle's album artwork over the last 20 years. Most notably is the packaging for the 2006 Fair album, as it was nominated for a Grammy in the "Best Recording Package" category. You can see some of the packaging here, but one thing you can't see except holding in your hand is the stunning metallic ink used. Back to the song, John Davis (Superdrag) contributes pedal steel and vocals.

9. "Antennae's Wife" from the 1999 solo album Moontraveler
This is the lone upbeat rock song on Aaron's debut solo album, as the rest of it is fairly quiet folk tunes. Structurally it is not that different than many Rose Blossom Songs, but instrumentally Aaron went in a completely different direction with the use of electronic percussion and a guitar tone never before previously used in his music. On a side note, this song began my obsession with the town Kalispell, Montana ("she was on her way to Kalispell") which culminated in a visit the following year, along with Glacier National Park.

8. "See It in Me" Rose Blossom Punch from the 1996 Tooth andnNail Records complication Artcore Volume 2
The first ever Rose Blossom Punch song appeared on 1995's Artcore Volume 1 comp., but Aaron outdid himself with the second song from what was at the time a "side project". Aaron later re-recorded a solo acoustic version of this song for the 2001 Really Something EP.

7. "The Attic" from the 2006 Fair album The Best Worst-Case Scenario
The production techniques are so unique and diverse on this album, bringing out so many textural elements. I didn't notice it until this week, but this song reminds me a lot of the sounds and tones on Death Cab for Cutie's most recent album Kintsugi; but the Best Worst-Case Scenario was recorded a decade beforehand. The female vocal harmonies from Brynn Sanchez add a lot as well.

6. "Hot Rod Horse" from the 1997 Rose Blossom Punch album Ephemere
Probably the most straightforward love song Aaron has ever written. I have an affinity for this track for many reasons, one of which is the line, "Driving through Tennessee", mentioning my home state. Damien Jurado's background vocals also add an interesting twist.

5. "The Patron" from the 2001 solo album Bareface
Always curious who these lyrics were about, and if it is someone specific. Any theories out there?
"All rise here comes the patron
His cause can't be mistaken
His eyes are turning red
'Cause he don't fit in

Talk about pretentious
Do you know now why you've left us out to dry?
So next time you see me
You'll know now how to greet me
Just remember days go by but so do I"

4. "Take Some Risks" from the 2010 Fair album Disappearing World
This is the longest and most epic of the songs on the second Fair album, and that brings out a theme: I feel Aaron is at his best when epic and long, yet he rarely ventures into that territory. Three of my favorite four songs of his are 5:14 or longer, and the best Poor Old Lu songs were also often long ("Rail", "Sickly", "The Waiting Room"). This song is highlighted by a string ensemble and a guitar solo that is reminiscent of an 80's metal ballad (and I love 80's metal ballads).

3. "Cyclone Fence" from the 1997 Rose Blossom Punch album Ephemere
Similar to 1996's Poor Old Lu album opener "Rail", "Cyclone Fence" is once again long, and builds gradually to an explosion of sound. It only took about 45 seconds of the first listen to get me excited about the future of Aaron's music post-Poor Old Lu. Another terrific example of the left-right mixing, with the song opening with guitar on the right, then percussion the left, then piano on the right, until the explosion right in the middle of your head. This song also continues to use the acoustic guitar as a texture in hard rock songs, which is one of my favorite elements of Poor Old Lu.

2. "No Reason To Pretend" from the 2001 solo album Bareface
This is the polar opposite of the other three songs in my top four, as it is brief and simple. It is the shortest song on this list by over 30 seconds, clocking in at only 2:26. Also, there are no bells and whistles; once again only acoustic guitar and Aaron's voice. Aaron's vocals have never sounded better and lyrically the song is my favorite he has ever written: "You'll never know, dear, how much you breath strength and courage into me..." Aaron's harmonies with himself are gorgeous, and the song ends with ghostlike a capella "ahhs".

1. "Unglued" from the 2006 Fair album The Best Worst-Case Scenario
This song has everything I love about Aaron's music: layers of guitars, hooks, vocal harmonies, and contributions from multiple talented musicians: Nick Barber on bass, Joey Sanchez on drums, Erick Newbill on guitar and vocals, and with even more vocals from sisters Sherri and Stacy Dupree (Eisley). There are few live videos of Aaron Sprinkle or his bands on the internet, as he practically never performs live. So pretty cool that this video of "Unglued" even exists, as I doubt Fair performed live more than a dozen times.

April 18 Update: I got in touch with Erick Newbill (Fair, Subways on the Sun, Wes Dando) and learned he actually wrote this song. I asked him to share his memories of the song as it was composed:

"'Unglued' came together entirely in the studio from a few different sources. The main intro section/riff was written on a day where Aaron was in Studio A working on something else and I was alone in Studio B working on ideas/parts for other stuff. I had thrown my capo on the 6th fret for no good reason (odd choice, never done it before or since) and was just playing chords super loud to try and get inspired for something new. The intro came quickly and I started building off of it.

"At some point during the process I remembered these other two demos that I thought might fit with that intro as potential choruses, verses, or something else. The quieter 'speak to me now...' guitar section was definitely from one of those demos, and I think the outro of the song came from the other. So I put all 3 ideas together and it morphed into one song. I was totally unsure of it at first, but it took shape as I started working on the lyrics and final arrangement. I remember wanting to write lyrics and melodies that took Aaron toward the upper part of his range, particularly toward the end.

"When we recorded the drums, Joey had this idea of never quite settling into a predictable pattern (which ended up becoming the pattern) for most of the song which moved things in a cool direction. Nick's bass parts and Aaron's key ideas made it all come together ultimately.

"Aaron had the idea of getting Sherri and Stacy DuPree to sing on it, which was an honor.  We had a great time having them join us live on that song several times on tour as well. I remember us playing the almost finished version for Ryan Clark (who designed the artwork) in the studio as one of the initial reference songs for him to get ideas for the final art and packaging."

Top 10 Aaron Sprinkle albums ranked:
1. Poor Old Lu- Sin (#1 album of 1994)
2. Poor Old Lu- A Picture of the 8th Wonder (#3 album of 1996)
3. Poor Old Lu- The Waiting Room (#3 album of 2002)
4. Fair- The Best Worst-Case Scenario (#4 album of 2006)
5. Poor Old Lu- Mindsize (#4 album of 1993)
6. Rose Blossom Punch- Ephemere (#5 album of 1997)
7. Aaron Sprinkle- Bareface (#20 album of 2001)
8. Aaron Sprinkle- Moontraveler (#10 album of 1999)
9. Fair- Disappearing World (#7 album of 2010)
10. Aaron Sprinkle- The Kindest Days (#25 album of 2000)

March 12, 2017

Please Don't Kiss Me; Top 25 Sixpence None the Richer songs

As I recently tweeted, my top 25 song posts (previously Death Cab [2.5 years old, needs updating], Thrice, and Eisley) have been getting a lot of reads lately. It is a fun project for me that I will continue.

Next up is Sixpence None the Richer. Sixpence is my co-favorite band of all time, along with Poor Old Lu. I know all Sixpence songs backwards and forwards so this list will be filled with much more commentary. Without question, I have written more about Sixpence on my blog and on Medium than any band ever, including statistically my most popular essay I have ever written:

Sixpence None the Richer’s “This Beautiful Mess” turns 20

I am working on an essay celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sixpence's self-titled record, and it will be published on Medium in the fall. (That essay will of course mention "Kiss Me", but you will not find it here as it is not close to being one of Sixpence's top 25 songs.) I have hope and a strong desire that the band will decide to do something to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the self-titled album (shows, Kickstarter for vinyl, or something like that), but even if they don't, I will do whatever I can to celebrate and draw attention to them.

One of the fun things I have decided to do with these lists is attempt to find live videos online for each of the 25 songs. For Sixpence that has proven more difficult, but I did create a YouTube playlist of all 25 songs, some are just studio versions:

In addition, I have a Sixpence 90's videos YouTube playlist that I created a couple years ago and add to whenever I find anything new. I am desperate to find audio or video of any Sixpence show from September of 1994 to July of 1995; please email me if you have any, or know of anyone who might! I would literally pay a ton of money for a video copy of either Sixpence's June 29, 1995 Cornerstone performance or their March 17, 1995 show at Calvin College.

Before I jump into the songs themselves, it would be helpful to share the order I prefer Sixpence's five studio albums:

1. This Beautiful Mess (My #1 album of 1995; my favorite, but I'll admit much of that is due to the rock style and nostalgia.)

2. Sixpence None the Richer (My #1 album of 1997; I would argue is the best and most definitive Sixpence album, even though it is not my favorite. My review written in 1998.)
(One of the only non-square album covers ever designed?!)

3. Divine Discontent (My #4 album of 2002; although I prefer the 2001 original, radically different tracklist that was sadly highly modified by the record label to make it more radio-ready.)

4. Fatherless and the Widow (My #4 album of 1994, but may have been released independently in late 1993.)

5. Lost in Transition (My #18 album of 2012; originally titled Strange Conversation and set for release in 2010 [when I first heard it through a friend of the band]; my blog with the original title is inexplicably the most read post in the 14-year history of my blog. The only difference between the original version and the final release is that "My Dear Machine" was added. Strange Conversation led with "Radio.")

I did some research, and by my count Sixpence None the Richer has recorded and released 82 original songs and has performed around 10 other original songs live that were never recorded. Sixpence also has released studio recordings of around 20 covers, half of which are on their Christmas album. And Sixpence has performed at least 10, maybe closer to 20, other covers live over the course of two decades.

Finally, before the list, my friend Joel Heng Hartse has a dedicated Sixpence song blog, Songs that Explain, in which he has written at length about most of these songs. If you are a Sixpence fan you owe it to yourself to get lost there.

Top 25 Sixpence None the Richer songs:

25. "My Dear Machine" from 2008's My Dear Machine EP
2008 saw the return of Sixpence after they had broken up for about 5 years. The EP had four songs and was free on NoiseTrade for a short period of time. In my popular "Open letter to Sixpence None the Richer", I posted the EP for free download again. Sixpence's label at the time didn't like that, and it led to a friendly phone call from Matt Slocum asking me to take it down. Matt was receptive to the "open letter" though, and I would like to think it led to the radical improvement of Sixpence's set lists that we saw in 2013 (I wrote about that and included a setlist here).

24. "Sad But True" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer (vinyl bonus track)
When I tell people I love Sixpence, they immediately think of the band's radio hits, which of course are radically different than most of the songs you see in this list. So I play them this aggressive rock song. "Sad But True" was recorded for the self-titled album, but didn't make the CD release. Was initially only available on the vinyl version of that album (which is depressingly still the only Sixpence vinyl LP).

23. "Don't Blame Yourself" from 2012's Lost in Transition
I have written at length how disappointing this album was for me, as Sixpence transitioned into almost entirely short pop songs built around Leigh's vocals. The change seemed to be intentional, but I mourn the loss of the elaborate instrumentation, complex song structures, and long instrumental interludes of Sixpence past.

22. "Don't Pass Me By" from 2001's (Original) Divine Discontent
As I wrote above, I prefer the original version of this album, and can't believe this song was left off the final version. It was included as a B-side on the 2003 "Don't Dream It's Over" CD single.

21. "Radio" from 2012's Lost in Transition
If Sixpence was ever going to have a big hit on mainstream radio, this seems like it would be it, much more so than their earlier songs. As far as pop Sixpence goes, this is the best of the best.

20. "Tension Is A Passing Note" from 2002's Divine Discontent
Divine Discontent's ballads and use of strings is absolutely gorgeous, and this is a perfect example.

19. "Drifting" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
Be sure to check out the video of this in my YouTube playlist, because it is the oldest of the bunch (from Cornerstone Festival 1994). That lineup included Joel Bailey on bass and Tess Wiley on guitar and background vocals. Unfortunately the cameraman rarely showed anyone but Leigh (probably not the only member of the crowd with a crush on her).

18. "Paralyzed" from 2002's Divine Discontent
This was sadly the last of Sixpence's aggressive rock songs.

17. "A Million Parachutes" from 2002's Divine Discontent
I am fairly certain I heard this song for the first time at Cornerstone 2001. Of the new songs they played that night on the main stage, it was the one that was the most memorable. The orchestration on the studio track is epic, and the live version from 2013 in my YouTube playlist has some ridiculous Matt Slocum guitar soloing.

16. "Brighten My Heart" from 1998's Exodus compilation
One thing Sixpence has done better than any band I have ever listened to is contributing exclusive songs to compilation albums. Glancing through my database of their songs (around 200, including live recordings), they wrote around a dozen songs that were recorded specifically for compilation albums, and can't be found anywhere else. This is my favorite of that bunch.

15. "Anything" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer
I was fortunate enough to see Sixpence None the Richer in concert nearly 15 times from the fall of 1995 to the summer of 2002. In 1997 alone, I saw them half a dozen times. As I have previously written, Sixpence None the Richer's self-titled album is the only album in my history in which I had heard every single song on it performed in concert before hearing the final studio versions. Two of the times were on the same night in February 1997 when Sixpence played back-to-back shows in Franklin, TN's Jammin Java coffee house. I was close enough that I could have moved Leigh's mic stand and depressed Matt's guitar pedals from my seat. On that night they played the majority of the self-titled album straight through, and began both shows with "We Have Forgotten" and "Anything", just as they appear on the album. Here is the setlist from that night (that I made into a collage):

14. "Dizzy" from 2002's Divine Discontent
Another one of the gorgeous, string-filled tracks on this album. My wife and I danced to it during our wedding reception in 2004.

13. "Melody Of You" from 2002's Divine Discontent
The most-stripped down, quiet Sixpence song ever released with acoustic guitar picking, leading to a swell of strings at the end.

12. "Love" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer
One of Matt Slocum's many terrific attributes is his willingness as a band-leader to modify studio tracks. There are numerous Sixpence songs that changed radically from their original forms. This song and the video I included in the YouTube playlist is one of the strongest examples, as the live version has an epic guitar riff not found in the original recording.

11. "Bleeding" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
This is the heaviest the band ever got during their rock phase. The outro is full of layers of distorted guitars and feedback and it is awesome.

10. "We Have Forgotten" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer

Sixpence excelled with album openers, especially on This Beautiful Mess, and this, the self-titled album. This song introduced a new era for the band, both stylistically and musically.

9. "Easy To Ignore" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer
I have a feeling readers may find this to be the most bizarre inclusion in my list, or at least in my top-10, but I have always adored this song so much. Part of that is because the song improved so much from the time I first heard it (originally titled "One Night") to the final studio recording. This is my favorite Sixpence song penned by Leigh (as the majority are written by Matt).

8. "Puedo Escribir" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer
This song is the epitome of what was only possible with J.J. Plasencio on bass and Dale Baker on drums, with their jazz training and skill. You won't find this on my YouTube playlist because the song is in the middle of a longer video (and the sound quality is poor), but this live version with Dale starting the song with handclaps is phenomenal (at 7:56):

7. "Within A Room Somewhere" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
Before "Kiss Me", this was Sixpence's most well-known song. There is an unfortunate radio-edit in which the aggressive instrumental outro is removed (the only thing worse is the existence of the dance remix of "Love, Salvation"). I am actually wondering if this song has been performed live by Sixpence more than "Kiss Me", because it has been around 2 years longer, and it continued to be a part of playlists through the band's most recent shows.

6. "Meaningless" from 1994's The Fatherless and the Widow
While most of this album sounds fairly dated, and the production and recording quality pales in comparison of what came after, it still contains excellent songs. "Meaningless" is the best one, primarily due to the life it took on in Sixpence's live shows. The song could sometimes last 15 minutes in concert as the band incorporated covers into the instrumental jam at the end.

5. "Angeltread" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
A perfect album opener, as it begins fairly innocently and similar to what Sixpence had done in the past. But then about a minute in the chorus explodes with distorted guitars. (Random comment: this song is seen online as "Angelthread", which is just silly and makes no sense. It was even spelled incorrectly on a Sixpence compilation album in the 2000's.)

4. "Dresses"from 1996's Tickets For a Prayer Wheel EP
After This Beautiful Mess had been out a couple months, Sixpence went back into the studio to record some additional songs. The entire EP is outstanding, but this is the highlight. The 2:50-3:10 segment of this song with Leigh and Tess alternating singing is one of my favorite parts of all of Sixpence's discography.

3. "The Lines Of My Earth" from 1997's Sixpence None The Richer
Possible the saddest song in Sixpence's discography, which is saying something because they have countless rather depressing tracks inspired by challenges both personally and in their career. At the time, when it seemed like this album would never come out, and when Matt wrote and Leigh sang, "This is the last song I that I write", it was hard not to believe them.

2. "Disconnect" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
As a friend of Tess Wiley and a huge fan of her post-Sixpence solo work (4 LPs and numerous EPs), her contributions to the band are essential to me. She contributed guitar and bgv's to numerous songs in this era, but this song she actually wrote. (I have been begging for years for her to record a solo version of the song, as I have always wanted to hear these lyrics sung with her voice.) While Tess was only in the band for just over a year in the 90's, she did rejoin Sixpence for their 2008 Flevo Festival performance (and she can seen playing guitar and heard singing bgv's in these performances of "Down and out of Time" and "Eyes Wide Open".)

1. "Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death" from 1995's This Beautiful Mess
I have an entire blog post dedicated to this song, full of details about how it was written and interview quotes from multiple members of the band. Joel Heng Hartse says it best:
"If I had to choose any song to represent Sixpence's entire oeuvre, it would probably be ["Love, Salvation, Fear of Death"]. It's so complex and pretty, so full of musical ideas that converge so subtly. That first clump of bass notes blows my mind--not being an expert, I cannot tell which are the real notes and which are the digital ghosts, and I imagine something like a 20-string bass played by 10 nimble fingers."

What is your favorite Sixpence song that I didn't include in my top 25?

March 2, 2017

Don't be Defeatist; Top 25 Eisley songs

Been listening to tons of Eisley lately, inspired of course with the release of their 5th album I'm Only Dreaming last month (my review here). I was blessed with discovering Eisley back when they were called MossEisley, specifically hearing them for the first time in May of 2002 when I ordered EP1 and EP2 off their website. Then I saw them at Cornerstone 2002 and the rest was history. (Random comment worth mentioning if you were not aware: when they signed to Warner Brothers in 2003, Lusasfilm objected to their name, so they briefly changed it to Neverland.)

Gallery of film photographs I took of Eisley at Cornerstone in 2002.

Besides just making a list of my top 25 favorite Eisley songs, I also made a YouTube playlist of live in concert versions of all 25 songs. The only exception is the new songs that I haven't found live versions of yet. Some of these live versions are unique, highly modified versions of the studio tracks.

Top 25 Eisley songs:
25. "Tree Tops" from 2003's Laughing City EP
24. "Drink The Water" from 2013's Currents
23. "Lights Out" from 2012's Deep Space EP
22. "Sad" from 2011's The Valley
21. "They All Surrounded Me" from 2006's Final Noise EP
20. "Brightly Wound" from 2005's Room Noises
19. "Currents" from 2013's Currents
18. "A Sight To Behold" from 2007's Combinations
17. "Always Wrong" from 2017's I'm Only Dreaming
16. "Taking Control" from 2007's Combinations
15. "Blue Fish" from 2013's Currents
14. "Like the Actors" from 2007's Like the Actors EP
13. "You Are Mine" from 2017's I'm Only Dreaming
12. "Marvelous Things" from 2005's Room Noises
11. "I Could Be There For You" from 2007's Combinations
10. "Watch It Die" from 2011's The Valley
9. "I Wasn't Prepared" from 2005's Room Noises
8. "Save My Soul" from 2013's Currents
7. "When You Fall" from 2017's I'm Only Dreaming
6. "Many Funerals" from 2007's Combinations
5. "Head Against The Sky" from 2005's Head Against The Sky EP
4. "Better Love" from 2011's The Valley
3. "Defeatist" from 2017's I'm Only Dreaming
2. "Ambulance" from 2011's The Valley
1. "Mister Pine" from 2002's MossEisley EP2

February 21, 2017

Songs you should be listening to this week

2017 is shaping up to be a phenomenal year for music. Last Friday Eisley released their new album, and as I shared on Twitter it is my favorite LP since Wolf Alice released their debut in the summer of 2015. Then out of nowhere my Tiny Engines label subscription sent me the new Wild Pink album, a band I had never even heard and I haven't been able to turn it off for a couple days. Today Cayetana released a new song from their new May album, and Spoon released their second single off their upcoming album. Speedy Ortiz released their first new song in awhile, and then I had an interesting Twitter conversation with David Bazan about a new/old song of his.

New Eisley album if you haven't listened yet:

Wild Pink:

The two new 2017 Spoon songs:


Speedy Ortiz:

David Bazan:

February 17, 2017

First thoughts on Eisley's "I'm Only Dreaming"

Eisley's new album "I'm Only Dreaming" drops today! But it has been streaming on YouTube for a couple days, so I've had a chance to spin it half a dozen times already. I ordered the "opaque oatmeal" vinyl version, but haven't gotten it yet. Thankfully the album is now also streaming in full on Bandcamp (below & the best place to buy if you are a digital-only person).

My initial reaction? Exceptional. "I'm Only Dreaming", the 5th Eisley full-length (along with countless EPs), might already be my favorite Eisley album, and I like it more than every album released in 2016. Strong words, but I think this might be the album I always hoped Eisley would release when I discovered them in 2002.

Back in August of 2015 I wrote this much-read blog post about Sherri's sisters Stacy and Chauntelle leaving the band. It was not necessarily surprising, considering all three sisters are now married with children and live in different places with unique goals. But the lack of surprise didn't mean it wasn't jarring, and I was worried about what Eisley would be without them.

Before I continue, let me apologize for the lack of credit I have given cousin and bass player Garron Dupree over the years. Sherri credits him as a co-writer in this informative recent podcast interview, and Garron's bass playing is terrific on the new album.

But, this post is about Sherri Dupree-Bemis and the phenomenal job she has done becoming front-and-center and bringing Eisley into a new era of the band. She discusses at length in that podcast what it has been like to take over as sole front-woman after sharing that with sister Stacy for 15 years. Sherri grabs the lead and is more confident than ever, both vocally and lyrically.

Eisley has always been very whimsical and imaginary, with songs about fairy tales, dragons, and the like. And while the subjetcs of the songs have changed and taken on more serious topics over the years, Eisley's music remains fun. Some of the best songs on this new album are about her life as a wife and mother.

The transition of Eisley from a collaborative family band (it began as four siblings playing together, and remained that way for years) to being driven by the single voice of Sherri is fascinating. This 2011 interview with Sherri and Stacy is a detailed read on how they wrote songs at the time and the progression up until that point.

To summarize, when they were young teens and pre-teens, Stacy and Sherri very much collaborated and co-wrote songs. But by the time Eisley released Currents in 2013, it was clear that the songs were being written independently by Sherri and Stacy (and one by Chauntelle), and then brought to the band for recording. On Room Noises, their 2005 debut, not only is it difficult to figure out who wrote each song, Stacy's and Sherri's voices are almost indistinguishable, especially considering much of the time they are harmonizing with each other. But on Currents, it was apparent on first listen who wrote each song, and the sisters voices have matured and are distinct. (As Sherri once said, “I have the nasally voice, and Stacy has the sultry voice.”) While the songs on Currents are great, the album as a whole is disjointed and muddled. (I am very much an "album person", and prefer to listen to LPs straight through, but rarely made it to the end of Currents.)

Now the present, with Stacy and Chauntelle having moved on to their own projects (Sucré and Rising Fawn, respectively), Sherri, with the help of Garron and producer Will Yip, have released the most cohesive and mature Eisley album to date. When the 11 songs end it leaves me wanting more.

Lyrically what stands out to me the most is the use of first-person, more than any Eisley in memory. The songs are much more transparent, and there is rarely any doubt about who "I" or "you" is. The first lyric that pops in to my head when thinking about the album is, "Just take my hand, just take my small, sweet hand," from the first track. The theme of love and commitment is found throughout the album.

Musically, I'm Only Dreaming is a fairly straight forward rock album with intricate production and meticulous detail. This is not an accurate description, but as my wife was hearing it for the first time this morning and we were talking about it in the car, I compared it to Death Cab for Cutie (but as random as that comment was, Eisley does sound more like DCFC now than they ever have). The use of electronic percussion is new, as are guest male vocals (Sherri's husband Max Bemis and Anthony Green).

My favorite song on the album at this point is "When You Fall." I am not certain of this, but I think it is a love song written to Sherri's daughters. At least as I sing along, I think of my own children: "Grace, you’ve got soul
Brains and beauty
You don’t know it at all
And you’re, you’re fierce and lovely
You’ve got that fire even though you’re small."

It will be interesting to see how my thoughts on this album grow and change over weeks and years, but in the short term I am thrilled and satisfied.

March 2 update: my top 25 Eisley songs

Here are songs Sherri wrote and sings lead on from the previous Eisley albums:

Currents (My #4 album of 2013)

The Valley (My #8 album of 2011)

Combinations (My #2 album of 2007)

Room Noises (My #2 album of 2005)

February 7, 2017

Crying and The Hotelier in Zurich

03-IMG_9326I saw Crying and the Hotelier in Zurich last night; unique trip for me, as I only discovered Crying a couple months ago, and I am not even a fan of the Hotelier. But I met up with a friend in Zurich, and it is only about an hour and 15 minute drive for me from southern Germany.

We arrived to Dynamo as Crying was beginning their first song. The band was fun and sincere, one of the reasons why I got into their music in the first place. As I said in my 2016 AOTY list, Crying is unique among most of the music that I listen to in that they are not overly serious (or depressing). It is refreshing to see and hear musicians play for fun!

They played the majority of their most recent album Beyond the Fleeting Gales along with a couple from their debut Get Olde Second Wind. While the songs from Gales were great live representations and very close to the studio tracks, the songs from Get Olde sounded radically different, and better. Crying's genre is often called "chiptune," a word and scene I was not familiar with until a couple months ago. But the live versions of the old songs are far more rocking and less Nintendo. Crying closed with my favorite song of theirs:

My only real complaint is that all the synths and bass are were on a track, and not performed live. The guitar work was ridiculous and the drumming was solid, but I wish all the instruments had been performed live rather than pre-recorded.

Here is my video of "ES", and the live version is awesome and far better than the studio recording from 3 years ago:

09-IMG_9349The Hotelier was tight and energetic. I definitely preferred their live show to their recordings, but they still don't really grab me on an emotional level. This is surprising, because the "scene" that I follow so closely loves the Hotelier and many ranked their 2016 album Goodness one of the best of the year.

I listened to Goodness repeatedly in order to better appreciate it and get ready for the show, and the songs were all better in concert. But the songs that really stood out to me and impressed me the most were from their prior album, Home, Like Noplace is There. This is the song I haven't been able to get out of my head since last night:

All photos by me, and you can find the rest of the set here.