Frank Ocean – Changing the ‘Channel’

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean‘s debut album, “Channel Orange” uses its title to reference the neurological phenomenon grapheme–color synesthesia and the color he perceived during the summer he first fell in love.  When Ocean was 19 years old, he first fell in love with a man, and the record details the fall, longing, rejection, heartache and other characters and imagery to create the color perception of that summer.  Not much has been made of Ocean’s sexuality, which is outstanding since it should be essentially a non-issue as art is about the universal human experience.

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Ignoring caution about his sexuality, his past, and his bankability for his label, Def Jam, Ocean dove in to unconventional urban musical waters.  Sounds slip and slide around his songs, standard song structure only occasionally being employed in his compositions. The tracks flow more free-form than your average Hip Hop/R&B artist.  This sounds more like Soul music via Animal Collective.  His songs are carefully crafted compositions, the sounds surrounding the lyrics, the smooth shiny cover to the words within.  In an interview with the magazine, Rap-Up, Ocean said of his record, “It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.”

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Thinkin Bout You” is his biggest hit, and for a popular song is surprisingly minimalist.  Soft synths, a bass drum and digital rimshot are about the only backing to Ocean’s singing.  It’s the song that made people sit up and listen, as Ocean sang about that first love, the tornado of emotions and the joy/pain that comes with every moment.  In his “Bad Religion,” the lyrics are Ocean’s emotional confession to a taxi driver about a love affair on the down-low. With sweeping strings, bigger percussion and a blowout chorus by the end, it shows the similarity between religious devotion and romantic emotion.  The Motown-throwback, “Forrest Gump” uses the titular literary and film character to allude to a teenage crush, and is a clever tongue-in-cheek take in both music and words.  The centerpiece of the record, and the true gem of this album is the track, “Pyramids.”  The track is essentially two songs in one, the first half being a dancy funk song using the Egyptian/Biblical story of the fall of Cleopatra VII as a love song. But then the synths slow down, the harmonic elements shifting into a different take on the tune, the Cleopatra character now being a present-day working girl, who dances at a strip club called ‘The Pyramid’ to support her superficial, meretricious man.  The song is so catchy, so moving, and the instrumentation so polished, that it becomes one of those tracks that you never want to end.  The Pyramids fade out slowly, and becomes the pillar of the emotional record.

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Channel Orange appeared on numerous critics’ year-end top albums lists. It was named the best album of 2012 by The A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, musicOMH, The Sydney Morning Herald, Now, Paste, PopMatters, Slant Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times. The album was also ranked number two by Allmusic, Ann Powers, BBC, Complex, Exclaim!, Filter, Mojo, Pitchfork Media, and Rolling Stone, number three by Clash, Jim DeRogatis, NME, State, and Time, and number five by Uncut.  In his top-10 list for the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence K. Ho called it “the most magnetic record of the year” and wrote that it “feels like a work that as the years pass will only grow in stature.”  It was definitely one of my favorite records of 2012, it won the Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” and deserves some serious attention as an art piece.

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Lana Del Rey – ‘Paradise’ Found

Lana Del Rey

I admit, I am late to the party. Late to jump on the bandwagon. Late to love the Lana.  Late to learn that Ms. Del Rey (AKA Lizzy Grant) is actually one of 2012’s top-selling artists.  But of late, I have also learned for all her sales and acclaim, a LOT of people have still never even heard of her.

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Until a few months ago, all I had heard of Lana Del Rey was an abysmal SNL performance.  How did I miss her debut album, “Born To Die,” which sold 3.6 million copies?  Or the even more impressive EP, “Paradise“?  I am not sure how these records slipped under my radar, but either way, I now got Lana firmly in my sights.  She has a new song featured on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and it has broken its way in to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

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But what makes Lana great is not that she’s a chart or sales success. It’s that she does her own thing. Her sound, although it may be calculated and controlled, is thoroughly her own.  She wanted to create a gangsta Nancy Sinatra, a Britney Spears-meets Elvis-via-Janis Joplin persona and vibe.  And she sounds nothing like her peers, who have all sold out for the same old generic club crud that would have been laughed at a decade ago.  What Lana is creating is a cinematic, soulful sound which has an urban swing and suburban flings about love, lust and longing for something more.  Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Lana is doing something different than all the other cut-and-paste record label cash cows, and a serious, solid listen to “Paradise” and “Born to Die” will prove it.

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Daft Punk – ‘Access’ Another Level

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How can music that sounds so dated feel so fresh? That is the astonishing thing about Daft Punk’s new masterpiece, Random Access Memories.  It drops the cut-up French-house disco snippets from their previous records, and instead embrace the whole disco aesthetic.  Live instruments marry synth symphonies and electronic beats.  Grooves laid down by Nile Rodgers himself litter the record, and the vocoder voices of Punk pop in between the instrumental disco tracks.

RAM isn’t just a dance record, but includes some real musicality, much like the under-appreciated songwriting ability of disco deities like the Gibb brothers.  “Within” is a slow-burn midtempo scorcher.  “Touch” is a sweeping, cinematic cry for love.  Michael McDonald could sue for the groove of “Beyond.”  “Doing It Right” featuring Panda Bear is the real highlight, a mix of vintage “Harder, FasterDaft Punk hooks mixed with this slower soul simmering under the LP.  And “Contact” closes the record with a grand finale approach, mixing digital arpeggios, organic instruments, building chords and grabbing their past sound mixed with the vibe of RAM, and it comes to an explosive ending, leaving us gasping for more… only to make us wait for the next record.  Well played, Daft Punk. Well played.

Slow Magic – ‘Triangle’ Takes The Square

Somewhere buried in label-land, a new subgenre of Electronic music is invented with each slight shift of subtle variation and divergence. These labels don’t offend me, but they also have become so minute and marginalized that a movement like “post-rock”, “chillwave” or even “dubstep” is deemed dead, practically stillborn. A style that is seen as new and inventive is often quickly rejected and then reviled, as if a listener should be embarrassed that they ever enjoyed something so… square. So welcome the new subgenre to be hip to be square and soon to be listed in the obituaries (probably by the time I finish this sentence) – Glow-fi.

Like Chillwave, Dream-pop, Nu gaze or any other myriad of names you give this electronic music, Slow Magic is another digital band which embraces elements from the ‘80s and ‘90s electronic music scene and adds distinctly millennial flavors. The production is really polished and crisp, and unlike a lot of other acts right now, keeps the fuzz and distortion down. It is essentially an instrumental album, with vocals and samples so deep in the mix, lyrics are not the focus here, the sounds, rhythms and melodies are the heart of ‘▲’.

‘Triangle’ or ‘▲’ is a short album, which is actually a re-release of Slow Magic’s EP, fleshed out with five additional tracks. The tracks do not feel tacked-on, though, it flows from piece to piece like a wholly-conceived concept. Like all great instrumental music, the pieces use sonics to place images in the mind of a listener, and while every image plays differently in the mind’s eye, some sounds conjure shared planes. ‘▲’ feels like its front cover, summer washed out in warm sunshine. Its protagonists, celestial versions of you and me. A feel-good album that never feels forced, ‘▲’ is a sunshine record that ignores the fact that it may be square, keeps its atmosphere light, and spins around my turntable and hard drive like an endless circle.

One Track Pony – Waiting For A Star To Fail

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Ever wonder why all those songs on the radio these days sound the same? It’s because they are the same. Rihanna, Katy Perry, P!nk, Justin Beiber, Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, Adam Lambert, Taio Cruz, One Direction, Britney Spears, Flo Rida, insert name here. If it’s pop, it’s pooped out of a one-stop pop shop – a top-line writer who creates the hook, lyrics and melodies, and a producer who puts together the beats, chords, synths and sounds.  The demo’s for the songs they create are sent out to A&R, labels, managers and artists.  The majority of those songs snatched up by labels and stars all come from the same handful of top-line writers and producers.  This sometimes leads to artists recording different songs off the same demo, like Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” that were created from the same track, by Ryan Tedder. Or Lil Jon’s demo that led to the interchangeable songs of Usher’s hit “Yeah” and Petey Pablo’s less-famous “Freek-A-Leek“.

The producers are almost always male: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Tricky Stewart, the Matrix, Timbaland, the Neptunes, or Stargate (pictured below). The top-liners are often, although not always, women: Makeba Riddick, Bonnie McKee, Ester Dean and Skylar Grey.  The people who create the songs are often in different places, sending each other files, demos, recording and mixes. The artists, who spend much of the year touring, don’t have time to come into the studio; they generally record new material in between shows, in mobile recording studios and hotel rooms, on iPads and laptops, working with demos that producers and top-line writers make for them to use as a kind of vocal stencil pattern. (The production notes for Rihanna’s single “Talk That Talk” say that her vocal was recorded on “the Bus” in Birmingham, Alabama, in Room 538 of the Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg, and in Room 526 of the Savoy, in London.

It’s no surprise that pop has become so mechanical and robotic.  It’s the dichotomy of technology, the ease in which music can now be created makes it more communal, but somehow less personal.  Collaboration isn’t as much between band members blocking it out in balmy basements, now teeny-boppers crop pop licks in single studios or home recording rooms, send a file in Dropbox and create a duet without even meeting face-to-face.  While I love electronic music, love the individuality of an indie composer, producer or artist, the cookie-cutter taste of so many listeners is fairly disturbing. Whether the industry or the listener is to blame is up for debate. Personally, like a tobacco industry, the music industry is about the bottom line. They don’t care how you get hooked, as long as you keep buying the product, they will throw in whatever gimmick people are buying.  And like a smoker who decides to live a different way and quit the hand-to-mouth product feeding of the tobacco industry, that’s how a discerning audience can change the musical landscape. Quit the digital nicotine of mainstream Top 40 pop, and require something more. Something different. Something unique. Something derivative rather than merely a duplication. Originality and organic music is out there, you just have to look beyond the industrial manufacturing and pre-manufactured productions which predominate the popular landscape.

For more information, visit the original article written for the New Yorker here.

Deadmau5 – >The ‘Album’ Progression<

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Sporting a giant, digitally morphing, electronic sphere mouse head, Canadian EDM artist Deadmau5 has been rocking audiences, MTV award shows and packed venues for the past few years.  Joel Zimmerman, as Deadmau5, has helped dance music explode into the pop scene recently, producing several albums, being featured in movies, television programming and video game scores.  His style of progressive house mixed with elements of dubstep and electro house has helped shape the landscape of popular Electronic Dance Music.

Already producing some straight-ahead EDM, I was excited to hear that Deadmau5 was trying his hand at hip hop with Cyprus Hill, downtempo with Imogen Heap and rap-rock with My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way.  I was hoping he would branch out to bring his creative, slick stroke to other styles.  Unfortunately for me, those collabo’s all fall short.  The hip hop sounds like a generic late ‘90s b-side, the Heap track wholly uninspired and the Way track is just plain annoying.  And it is really too bad, because what Deadmau5 does, he does WELL.

The standout track, ‘Closer’, borrows the alien’s musical theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turns it in to a rousing club banger. ‘Superliminal’ is crunchy, funky hard house dubbed deep in dark club corners and just feels sublimely filthy. ‘The Veldt’ is smooth house, less for clubbing and more for the after-party or lounging by the pool.  The other tracks are great too, but those ones are some standouts.  In fact, it’s too bad the branch-outs fall so flat, because if Deadmau5 brought the same level of polish and creativity on those tracks, >album title goes here< could be a clubber’s classic. I hope Deadmau5 keeps pushing his style in to new territories, but brings the electric excitement from his “mau5head” to his new tunes.

Active Child – ‘You Are All’ Going To Love This

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Harps pluck, beats funk, and synths sigh and grind in-between Active Child‘s vocals by Pat Grossi, floating falsettos in electronic soundscapes.  Grossi’s electronic-folk-funk seems reminiscent of James Blake or How To Dress Well, but the songs on “You Are All I See” are more accessible, harmonic and memorable.  The flow of the record is its greatest strength, a cool stream going through a broken cathedral in rich, amber-autumn forests. You can appreciate the flow, the glow of light and ambient sound off Child’s cathedral walls, or the electronic landscapes of lush leaves and beats.

Some highlight tracks are “Hanging On” and “Playing House”, but the record flows effortlessly, so it will be hard to choose a favorite while listening to the entire album.

No Doubt – ‘Push’ Their Way To The Pop

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After a ten-year hiatus, No Doubt dropped their new record “Push and Shove” to a critical and commercial shoulder-shrug.  The return record peaked at number three on Billboard’s charts, but to be fair, No Doubt hasn’t sat at the tip-top on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart since “Tragic Kingdom” made its long climb to #1 in December of 1996.  While some music critics have given “Push” a positive review, none were glowing.  Again, to be fair, the low 60s average of critical reviews from Metacritic is pretty par per the band’s last two records, “Rock Steady” and “Return of Saturn.”  The link to those albums does not end there.

No Doubt began as a full-fledged ska band, their first two records being largely straight ska.  Even “Tragic Kingdom” was almost pure ska.  The band then changed directions, while still keeping some ska ingredients on “Return of Saturn,” they incorporated more traditional rock elements, new wave, funk and alt rock flavors.  Pushing even further into future funk, “Rock Steady” mixed the ska/rock with dance, dub, synthpop and electronic.  While it never pushed past third place on the pop charts, “Rock Steady” did produce the group’s most successful singles and a pair of Grammy wins.

No Doubt’s evolution has continued, shying away even further from dirty rock and in to shiny pop.  Many critics feel like “Push” is a posh pursuit of pop, playing into Katy Perry and Dr. Luke territory while leaving their original sound behind.  What that opinion doesn’t account for is that No Doubt is never the same. They change sounds constantly. This record keeps up the energy of “Hella Good” and ventures deeper into New Wave, dub, dance, electronic and pop. Upon first listen, sure it might sound like the present pop on the radio and MTV, but if you listen further, you’ll realize that unlike a lot of that pop, “Push and Shove” is just good music and under the synth is still No Doubt.  In “Looking Hot” you can hear pieces of “Spiderwebs”.  “Undone” recalls the ballad power of “Don’t Speak”.  “Heaven” bounces like “Hella Good”, and in “Push and Shove” the reggae/dub funk of “Hey Baby” and “Sunday Morning.”  And unlike a lot of pop, the musicality of this record is much more dense and complex that it may initially seem.

“Dreaming the Same Dream” closes the record and is probably the best song on the entire album.  My partner has played this record to death on his iPod, the car CD deck and my Technics turntable.  Yet the songs don’t get old. In fact, it is the most accessible, catchy and polished record No Doubt has released so far.  While some fans may have been hoping for another return to Saturn or some tragic ska Kingdom, I am happy with No Doubt pushing and shoving through my stereo all day long.

Washed Out – ‘Within’ The Chill Wave

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The Chillwave subgenre has become the hipster-hater’s punching bag amongst music snobs.  Its retro instrumentation and honored homage to the musical aesthetics of all-things-80s has inexplicably caught their ire, lighting fire to scathing reviews for almost every lo-fi glo-fi record to roll out since the term was coined five years ago.  While traditional classical, blues, country, jazz, rock and other genres can be as retro as they want without an eye batting, the chill wave faces shrill hate from many, many purists and critics.

Perhaps it’s the fact that so much of Chillwave is produced by music geeks in bedrooms on laptops instead of in groups, bands or orchestras.  The isolation and solitude in the sound alienating consumers who feel that music isn’t real unless it’s produced by committee.  The singular style and unpolished compositions polarizing listeners now accustomed to shiny-sounding ones and zeros.  Whatever the reason, a great Chillwave album usually starts out with a losing record among the elite.  But if the slate were washed clean, Washed Out would gleam – a saturated summer love note which washes over the listener in a wave of reverb and sunshine.

With vocals so buried in reverb and chorus, the lyrics are not the stars of “Within and Without,” they take a back seat to the dense synths, basses and laid-back beats of Ernest Greene.  The lyrics and melodies become a lead-string line in an immense symphony, the tone, flow and emotion of each line the real voice to convey the stroke of the composer.  Greene is assisted by Ben H Allen in the production, who has helped produce “Merriweather Post Pavillion” for Animal Collective and engineered Gnarls Barkley.  But make no mistake, this is Greene’s baby.  His rich instrumentation and fuzzy warm production that marked his underground EPs are front and center again in his debut LP.  While not quite huge enough to be a life-changing record, it is one that will get played for years and years and years. By making an ambiguous homage to albums faded and dated, the timelessness of Washed Out’s sound can live on for decades to come.

M83 – ‘We’re Dreaming’ For the Record of the Year

From the opening soundscapes slowly seeping into sonic seas, the vast and deep musical voyage in this double-LP record is one of the greatest records one may ever experience.  The album is wonderfully realized, masterfully produced, and is like a vinyl record of a time-long-passed, where an album was like a novel – meant to be explored and enjoyed as an entire work.  With the advent of the iTune, listeners are now accustomed to single downloads, compressed audio, and produce-by-numbers pop shots.  In ‘Midnight City,’ M83 has a brilliant lead single, ready for radio, trailers and yes, even falling Victoria Secret angels.  But M83‘s Anthony Gonzales wasn’t just aiming for a hit single, he crafted an ambitious, enveloping record which is so much greater that the singles of its parts.

While working on the record, Gonzales himself stated that the album would be “very, very, very epic.”  Gonzales did not disappoint.  With 74 minutes of music,Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” plays like a composer’s concert and deserves a seated listen.  Slip in the CD, start the tape or spin the vinyl – a wholly developed synthetic symphony is about to begin.  The instrumental pieces connect and enhance the vocal songs, the tracks themselves vast and different.  The vocals are washed out and processed, but are stronger than any previous M83 record.  Gonzales and fellow vocalist, Morgan Kibby, weave in and out of their lines and melodies, raindrops on windshields.  A record, a truly “epic” record, should aim to be an experience on the whole. A hit single, a club-friendly tune, or a clip to fit a Honda Fit commercial are the aim for some, but M83 recalls the days of Pink Floyd and Ziggy Stardust – the record requires attention start to finish, the sign of an absolutely perfect record.

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