Five Pentatonix Covers I Am Waiting For

Pentatonix
Perhaps you abhor a cappella as a crime against nature, as a violation of the laws of god, armadillo and man. Or perhaps you are a nihilist and revel in its existence for it proves that the universe is indeed not just indifferent but hostile to the notion of joy. If so you probably have not seen Pentatonix perform their covers of various songs that you had not previously realized could be improved by removing the music and replacing it with a series of grunts, clicks, claps, hums, exhalations and anguished moans emitted by five earnest-faced people held together by various hair products and striking dramatic poses. You’ve probably missed their very necessary updating of “Hallelujah”, which they reinterpret in the voice of an emotionally challenged 45 year old talking to somebody else’s four year old in a grocery store*. You’ve probably not taken in their cover of “White Winter Hymnal” to which they return the vital harmonies missing in the original. And you’ve probably missed the one in which one of their members joins a group of men’s rights activists singing “Ring of Fire” in a ring around a fire (to which they’ve each come in a separate truck—do a cappella artists not believe in carpooling?) There is no song they cannot improve. Accordingly, here is my wish list of songs I pray they cover. Continue reading

2013 Music

I usually post my year-end list of music I enjoyed in January, but our India trip intervened this year, and then came the long period of recovery from the India trip, especially as I came back to a fair bit of time off from work and so had my rhythms thrown off. And while in the past I’ve posted these lists on Facebook, now that I have a blog it seems wrong to deny the broader public a glimpse of my excellent taste. Isn’t it enough that I keep from you the daily pictures of my lunches and dinners, and the minute by minute updates on the doings of my dastardly children and dogs that I post on Facebook? Must you be denied this as well? No, a hundred times no! Read on for my list of my favourite 2013 music.

Thanks, as always, to Bill P. and his band of renegades for keeping me in the loop. It is, of course, their fault that I continue to get more out of touch with hip-hop every year.

As of a few years ago I stopped ranking albums, or trying to cram them into randomly constrained lists, and instead started putting everything I found interesting for one reason or the other in a series of blocs, sometimes overlapping ones. My lists therefore tip far more to the exhaustive than the selective end of the continuum. And if this list appears tediously eclectic please blame the people mentioned in the previous paragraph. Truthfully, my tastes have gone all over the map since my teens (“I was so much older then…” etc.).

(Artists are listed in alphabetical order in the blocs.)

Things I listened to a lot and am still playing regularly.

  • James Blake, Overgrown: This kid is very good and getting better. Very few people do as much with empty space as he does.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away: This may be my favourite album of the year; spare, autumnal music and some of the best lyrics Cave has written in a while.
  • Deerhunter, Monomania: I think I say this with every album but this may be their best yet.
  • Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse: Their best album yet, I think, and the most musically textured. “December’s Traditions” is one of my songs of the year.
  • MGMT, MGMT: Could have called it Tribute to Early Pink Floyd. I like this better than most of early Pink Floyd though.
  • My Bloody Valentine, m.b.v.: Okay, so I would have put this up here simply for existing. But it’s also excellent.
  • The National, Trouble Will Find Me: Even though it may not be the best of their last three albums it is still very good.
  • Savages, Silence Yourself: What a lovely racket.
  • Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals: I remember being very resistant to Treats though it did end up on my year-end list that year as well. I no longer resist Sleigh Bells.
  • Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze: Came out early in the year and got forgotten by a lot of people, I think. This is lovely and low-key. Somewhere Matthew Sweet is smiling.

Things I liked a lot but not as much as the previous lot.

  • Arctic Monkeys, AM: Starts out so strong, but doesn’t quite sustain those heights.
  • Austra, Olympia: I would listen to her sing the speeches of Sarah Palin. Luckily, this is not the speeches of Sarah Palin
  • Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You: From beginning to end this may be the strongest of her last three albums, but it doesn’t have the high highs of the previous two. Also, I cannot reward her move towards Fiona Apple-ish album title length.
  • Mikal Cronin, Mcii: I haven’t heard his first album–is it as good?
  • Cults, Static: I liked the first album but for some reason didn’t have high expectations for this one. But this is very good.
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: This is a lot of fun, yes…
  • The Knife, Shaking the Habitual:…but the avant-garde Swede siblings kick their ass.
  • Polica, Shulamith: Picks up where Give You the Ghost left off; they wear the Portishead influence more openly on their sleeve here. This is also the best album released last year that is named for a recently deceased radical feminist.
  • Portugal. the Man, Evil Friends: This starts out so high, never quite makes it back there but very strong on the whole.
  • Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: The sisters clearly made a play for the mainstream but this is just lovely pop music.
  • Waaves, Afraid of Heights: I don’t know why these guys don’t get more love. Music to be played very loudly, ideally through an open car window.
  • Kanye West, Yeezus: I’ve become one of those people I used to deride–people who don’t listen to much hip-hop but get very excited about Kanye. But he’s just getting better and you have to celebrate when the popular and the avant-garde come together like this.
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito: Another one that people lost sight of, I think. By the way, how lovely was Karen O’s performance at the Oscar’s this weekend?

Things I dropped one level because the previous list got too long

  • Basia Bulat, Tall, Tall Shadow: As I said on Facebook when I posted the video of the great title song, I am listening to someone who sings while playing an autoharp. And they say I am incapable of growth.
  • Best Coast, Fade Away: Like everyone says, a return to form.
  • Low, The Invisible Way: You have to be in a very specific kind of mood to really appreciate Low at the best of times, I think; but long Minnesota winter nights can really set the background if you’re in the mood.
  • Los Campesinos!, No Blues: I am hesitant to use the words “grown up” as praise, but this is a more mature album and the better for it.
  • M.I.A, Matangi: There seems to be a bit of a M.I.A backlash in progress. Me, I quite liked this.
  • Waxahaatchee, Cerulean Salt: As a general rule I am opposed to singer-songwriters who call themselves things like Waxhatchee but bloody hell, this is good.

Things that I liked fine but am not in a huge hurry to listen to all the way through again

  • Bill Callahan, Dream River: Doesn’t quite have the highs of the previous two albums.
  • Ed Harcourt, Back Into the Woods: Some nice songs but too much of a sameness on the whole.

Things by philosophy and music professors at elite liberal arts colleges

  • The Counterfactuals: Minimally Decent People: More than the young I resent the success of people I know. Still this is more than minimally competent. They wear their influences (mostly jangly Americana, plus people like the Walkmen) on their sleeves and there’s a bit of a sameness here too, but I look forward to their upcoming goth-prog opus.

Things I was not expecting to like as much as I did

  • Deafhaven, Sunbather: When mainstream critics suddenly begin to rave about albums from genres they don’t usually cover I immediately get dubious. But people of unimpeachable taste (Comrade Purdy and friends) recommended it highly and I nabbed it and eventually got around to listening to it. It’s a slow-burner if you’re not into black/death metal but it fits rather seamlessly alongside the new My Bloody Valentine and if you like shoegaze you’ll find much to like here–if you can get past the vocals (though they’re rather restrained as the genre goes). I will say that this really benefits from being played loudly through large speakers moving sound through the air in a large room, and not in a car or on headphones or off computer speakers.
  • Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Record: I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting to like this except I generally expect to be annoyed by people who like Eleanor Friedberger. But this is very good.
  • Lorde, Pure Heroine: This one I was not expecting to like because I am suspicious of the very young, and am ashamed to say I did because saying so makes me feel a bit like a creepy old man. I mean, it’s bad enough that I always have Tegan and Sara on these lists.
  • Primal Scream, More Light: Only because I’d completely lost touch with them, but this is like an updated Screamadelica in many respects.
  • Tricky, False Idols: Again, only because I’d completely lost touch with Tricky. This is rather good, if somewhat light compared to his early masterpieces. And I do miss Martina. Some really great songs.
  • Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City: I have been somewhat resistant to these guys as I am very ambivalent about their adoption/appropriation of African rhythms. But this album is quite a way away from their early sound and is very good. I look forward to more.

Things I did not like as much as I was expecting to, for one reason or the other

  • Bill Callahan, Dream River: Like I said, I did not dislike this; but I’ve loved everything else he’s done (more or less) so felt particularly let down.
  • Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe: I didn’t love the stuff this is derivative of back in the late ’80s, so why am I supposed to love it now? Some very nice songs though, and I liked the second half more than the first.
  • Drake, Nothing Was The Same: Some of this is very good, but most of it is pedestrian.
  • HAIM, Days are Gone: Some very nice songs (the title song, particularly) but this is overrated, no? Can we admit this now? And why did so many people compare them to Fleetwood Mac?
  • Iron and Wine, Ghost on Ghost: Didn’t care for the previous one, was hoping it was a blip. Nope.
  • Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady: If you’d told me a year ago that Monae could put out a dull album I would have said you were crazy. Alas.
  • Superchunk, : Unlike much of the stuff in this category I actually liked this fine end to end, but the talk led me to think I would love it.
  • Volcano Choir, Repave: Frankly, there’s not a terrible lot wrong with this; I’m just sick of hearing Vernon’s falsetto everywhere.

Things I might like better if not for the name of the act

  • Waxahaatchee, Cerulean Salt
  • The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Whenever, If Ever

People whose 2013 albums I’m still listening to

  • Burial
  • The Besnard Lakes
  • Cloud Cult
  • Fuck Buttons
  • Tim Hecker
  • Phoenix

Some of my favourite songs of the year

  • Arctic Monkeys, “Do I Wanna Know?”
  • Basia Bulat, “Tall Tall Shadow”
  • Nick Cave, “We No Who U R”, “Higgs Boson Blues”
  • Mikal Cronin, “See It My Way”
  • Cults, “We’ve Got It”
  • Daft Punk, “Get Happy”
  • Deerhunter, “Neon Junkyard”, “Dream Captain”
  • Frightened Rabbit, “December’s Traditions”
  • HAIM, “Days are Gone”
  • The Knife, “Ready to Lose”
  • The National, “Sea of Love”, “This Is The Last Time”
  • Portugal. The Man, “Plastic Soldiers”
  • Primal Scream, “Tenement Kid”, “It’s Alright, It’s OK”
  • Savages, “City’s Full”
  • Sleigh Bells, “Bitter Rivals”
  • Tricky, “Bonnie and Clyde”
  • Kurt Vile, “Wakin on a Pretty Day”
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Sacrilege”

Things I’m looking forward to in 2014

  • The new Beck which I haven’t listened to yet.
  • The new Future Islands which should be out soon.
  • And we’re due for new ones from PJ Harvey, Florence + The Machine, the New Pornographers, St. Vincent and Destroyer too. The Madvillainy follow-up which I’ve been waiting for for years now is apparently off for good.

And finally, a little memorial. Yes, we lost Lou Reed this year but I want to make one last tribute in memory of someone much less well-known whose untimely passing hit me very hard: Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia etc.. Molina had this huge talent whose affect came from its simultaneous sincerity and sloppiness and while he gave us a lot of great music in his truncated life (he was three years younger than me) he was only just coming into his prime. Please listen to Songs: Ohia’s last album, The Magnolia Electric Co.. Every day he lived, he told us, he was trying to sing the blues the way he found them. I wish he could have kept singing them a little longer.