Five Quality Tracks: April 2017

 

1. Rostam: “Gwan”

Sometimes a song is so stunningly beautiful that it stops you in your tracks. “Gwan” is one of those songs.

Rostam Batmanglij was one of the key members of Vampire Weekend, playing an important role in shaping the group’s unique baroque-pop sound, before exiting the band early last year to focus on his solo material, collaborations with Hamilton Leithauser and Ra Ra Riot, and other production work for the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Although I will miss Rostam’s presence in Vampire Weekend, it’s become apparent that he needed to spread his wings.

I’ve always liked and respected Rostam’s music and various contributions, but I didn’t fall in love with him until the release last month of his new single, “Gwan.” It’s built on a gorgeous string arrangement, buttressed by occasional piano, bells, and muted drums. Rostam lets the strings do the work, especially about two-thirds of the way through the song when everything else drops out, leaving those exquisite violins and cellos to capture our imagination, while he sings about “listen[ing] to what your subconscious mind is trying to say to you.” You can feel Rostam’s contentment seeping through the song. He sounds self-assured, confident, and happy to be doing what he does. There’s so much emotion and beauty packed into these five minutes that whenever I listen to it, memories and scenes from my life spring to mind in vivid detail. “Gwan” is incredibly moving, and we’re lucky to have it.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: March 2017

March was ridiculous. Somehow, after all this, I failed to include new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Fleet Foxes, and Real Estate. That’s honestly a crime, and I apologize. All indications point to Kendrick dropping an album (or at least something) on April 7th, and Fleet Foxes will release their long-awaited follow-up album in June, so they’ll still have a chance to make it on here. And so, without further ado, five quality tracks for March.
 
 
1. Lorde: “Green Light”

A friend of mine recently asked me who makes more ‘anthemic’ songs — Taylor Swift or Lorde? Lorde’s celebrated debut album from 2013, Pure Heroine, was exceptional, full of quietly encouraging, relatable songs (“Team” is an all-time favorite), but I wouldn’t characterize it as anthemic, necessarily. Swift may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but singles like “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Bad Blood” are as conducive to late-night, impromptu sing-alongs as anything. So, after judging their musical output as a whole, my answer was Taylor Swift. BUT, on a song-by-song basis, the most anthemic track either of them have ever done is easily Lorde’s new single, “Green Light.”

After four fairly quiet years since Pure Heroine, Lorde, the New Zealand phenom who first deservedly captured our attention at the age of 16, is returning to us with her sophomore effort in a couple months. For her new album, Lorde tapped Bleachers and fun. member Jack Antonoff to produce and help with songwriting. Antonoff has production experience with some of the biggest names in pop, including Taylor Swift, Sia, Rachel Platten, and Sara Bareilles, so I was interested to see how his influence would manifest itself with Lorde.

I was immediately taken aback by “Green Light,” and not exactly in a good way. It is very pop in a reach-for-the-stars kind of way, which is not what I expected from Lorde and her more brooding, subtle style. But the more I heard it, the more the various parts stuck with me, like that enticing rhythmic piano in the lead-up to the chorus, or Lorde’s pitch-perfect lyrics, like her sneer directed at an ex, singing “She says you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.”

Previously, Lorde deftly straddled the line between electro-indie and pop in a way that was unique at the time. So to hear “Green Light,” which is very much a full-fledged pop song, was a bit jarring at first. But the thing is, “Green Light” aims big — that’s the whole point — and it succeeds tremendously. Taylor Swift has written timeless anthems, but if I were to drive around with the windows down late at night with friends, the first song I would want to hear is “Green Light.”

 
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Five Quality Tracks: February 2017

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1. Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean & Migos: “Slide”

You guys, this song is really good. Calvin Harris, the electro-dance producer (and recent Taylor Swift flame), decided to team up with two completely different artists in the introspective and ingenious soul-singer Frank Ocean, and Atlanta trap-rap kings Migos, who are currently basking in the spotlight with their chart-topping single “Bad and Boujee.” “Slide” features an unexpected collision of worlds, but it ultimately works in the best possible way. Harris’s silky, shimmery beat is an immediate earworm — I can already picture it setting the mood for some laid-back July barbecues.

Frank Ocean is the song’s anchor, and I love when he drops the pitched-up “I might!” during the verses as the beat drops out. But my favorite part is the verse by Offset, one of the two “Migos” that appear. His fast flow punches the track up a notch, bringing it from “really good” to “great.”

I was a fan the first time I heard “Slide,” and my love for the song has only grown each time I’ve listened. Now we don’t have to wring our hands over what the 2017 “Song of the Summer” will be. We have it locked in, everybody can go home.

Preview:

Full song:

 
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50 Years of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Greatest Pop Song Ever

An examination of what makes the Lennon-penned Beatles track so special

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A mellotron, three cellos, four trumpets, a bit of sound engineering mastery, and the inner workings of the mind of John Lennon. These are some of the special ingredients that constitute “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the best pop song ever created, which turns 50 years old today.
 
 
THE LEAD-UP
“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”

In late 1966, the Beatles were at a crossroads. They had unanimously decided to stop touring, weary of both the slog of the road and the inability to hear their own instruments over the screaming crowd. Lennon had just given an interview where he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” a quote that incensed America’s heartland. (Later, he clarified that he meant the Beatles’ popularity had risen to such a level that their influence on youth had eclipsed that of Christianity.)

Regardless of his intention, many fans had already turned on the Beatles. Combined with the unsatisfying chaos of their live concerts, morale in the group was at an all-time low. After what became their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, the band decided to take a much-needed break from the three-year-long whirlwind of Beatlemania. Paul McCartney wrote a film score, George Harrison went to India, and Ringo Starr relaxed with family, while Lennon went to the coast of Spain to act in a film by Richard Lester called How I Won the War.

In November, the Beatles reconvened in the studio to start work on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first track they tackled was a pretty little slice of a song Lennon had written and demoed during his time in Spain, called “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Even before it germinated into the full-sounding, multi-instrumental version we know today, you can hear the seed of something special in this demo. Lennon’s lyrics are part nostalgia and part uncertainty. The lyrics are built around memories of playing on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home close to where he grew up in Liverpool, but it’s full of stops, starts, and stutters — “I think, uh, no, I mean…” and “That is, I think…” Lennon once said, “The second line goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.'”
 
 
RECORDING
“I think, uh, no, I mean, uh, yes, but it’s all wrong / That is, I think I disagree”

It took a significant amount of ingenuity and persistence for the final version to come about. George Martin, the group’s producer since the beginning and true “Fifth Beatle”, regularly worked with Lennon and McCartney (and occasionally Harrison) to help them execute their vision for a song.

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

McCartney was usually relatively specific when relaying to Martin the sounds in his head and how he wanted them represented on the record, often suggesting specific instruments and even helping with the arrangements. Lennon was much more vague, indicating certain feelings or emotions he wanted to convey in the song, and expecting Martin to follow through with the specifics. When recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” earlier that year, Lennon said he wanted it to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks,” leaving Martin to figure out how to realistically accomplish that.

After recording a few takes, Lennon wasn’t satisfied, frustrated that none of the recordings exactly matched the sounds in his head. This discontent resulted in the most remarkable technical aspect of the song, something that goes largely unnoticed. Indeed, the very fact that it goes unnoticed is what makes it so remarkable. Lennon decided he wanted to use the first part of an early take and combine it with the second part of a later take — the only problem is the two takes were recorded at different tempos and in different keys. Melding the two together appeared to be impossible. When Martin expressed his strong doubts, Lennon nonchalantly told him, “You can fix it, George.”

He was right. Lennon’s naïvety produced brilliance. The group’s sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, sped up the first take and slowed down the second take so that the pitches matched, and somehow the tempos miraculously matched as well. Right at the 1:00 minute mark, the track shifts to a completely different take recorded two weeks later, with seamlessness. The dreamy first part gives way to the busy, more varied second part, contributing to the uniqueness of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
 
 
WHY IT’S THE BEST
“Let me take you down”

My taste has changed and evolved in my quarter century of loving music, but one thing has remained the same since about the age of 10 — “Strawberry Fields Forever” has been my favorite song of all time. Not just my favorite song as a child, or my favorite song by the Beatles, or my favorite song of the Sixties. My favorite song by anyone, ever.

It’s never easy to explain why a particular song is your favorite song. So much of it is tied up in emotions and memories and experiences that only you’ve had. Certainly the technical genius needed to make the final version of the song work contributes to the song’s lore, but that doesn’t fully account for why I love it.

In part, “Strawberry Fields Forever” represents the most dramatic turning point of the Beatles’ career. The sheer speed of their transformation has always amazed me. In August 1966, they were playing a Little Richard cover to screaming fans with suits and clean-shaven faces. Three months later, they were sporting mustaches, wearing colorful frills, and blazing a trail for complex psychedelic rock in the recording studio. The Beatles’ innovation and trend-setting were at their peak as 1966 transitioned to 1967, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the period’s soundtrack.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-12-01-42-pmAs far as the specifics of the song itself, the melody has always transfixed me. Unlike McCartney, whose melodies went up and down and spanned many notes across the scale (just listen to “Yesterday”), John Lennon’s melodies always had a small range of just a few notes. Listen to when he sings “Living is easy with eyes closed” — every syllable of that line is sung on the same note. But it’s cathartic. Like the way he stretches the word “low” into three notes on “I mean, it must be high or lo-o-ow” — I always appreciated the way he sung that.

But what it really comes down to is this: I love every single moment that every single instrument plays. I relish every time a new trumpet line comes in (like when they soar in the second verse as he sings “No one, I think, is in my tree”), or a new cello line (at the end of the third verse, during “That is, I think I disagree”), or when I hear those backwards cymbals, or Ringo’s manic drumming in the chorus. Each individual part is perfect on its own, but they’re also perfect as part of a whole. The interplay between all the instruments and the beauty that springs up from the cohesion always made me feel like anything in music was possible. I remember listening to it as a 12-year-old on my Discman (that was a CD player, kids) and being completely blown away. It’s gorgeous, it’s mind-opening, it’s supremely weird, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before or since.

Ian MacDonald, the late music critic and Beatles scholar, wrote of the song, “While there are countless contemporary composers qualified to write music hugely more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.” That directness, spontaneity, and originality is why I consider “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be the greatest pop song of all time.

First 1:23 of the song:

Full song:

 
UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn’t include this clip that I just watched in an excellent Consequence of Sound post on the Beatles’ stark 1967 reinvention. After playing the promotional video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” live on his show, Dick Clark goes into the audience and asks what people think of the Beatles and their new look/sound. Let’s just say they are NOT fans. Luckily there’s one individual at the end who goes against the wisdom of the crowd, and says, with an awestruck smile: “I thought it was great.”

Five (*Ten!) Quality Tracks: January 2017

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2017 wasted no time in giving us spectacular music — January was bountiful. To celebrate the new year and new music, I decided to highlight ten of my favorite tracks of the month. You’re welcome.
 

1. Sampha: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”

Sampha has lent his unique voice to numerous pop stars, including Drake, Solange, and Beyoncé, and he’s now finally released his debut album, Process. It feels like Sampha’s third single is speaking directly to me: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.” The piano chords are exquisitely poignant (it sounds like you’re right there in the living room with him), and Sampha’s vocals are bare and full of muted passion and yearning for familiarity.

 
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Best Albums of 2016

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With the gradual proliferation of streaming services and curated playlists, for a while it didn’t look likely that the “album” format would survive. Yet here we are, at a time where the biggest pop stars are releasing cohesive, fully developed ALBUMS, in capital letters. I will always have a soft spot for the album as a concept, whether contained on discs of vinyl or within links to Spotify pages. Smash hits lie alongside deep cuts to form one 30-70 minute statement reflecting the artist’s pain and joy, their view of the world, their quest to express the words in their head and the riffs in their gut. Here are my 25 favorite albums of 2016.

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Best Songs of 2016

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When life is terrible, music is always there as a buoy to hold you up or a companion to understand you. It can provide encouragement, escape, respite, validation, catharsis. And man, we needed it in 2016.

The year’s music, as it always does, took all shapes and sizes. We welcomed back the beloved (Radiohead, Bon Iver), became acquainted with genre-bending stars-in-the-making (Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada), and entrusted indie rock in the hands of promising young storytellers (Car Seat Headrest, Pinegrove). The very top of the rap food chain graced us with new tracks (Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar), as well as up-and-coming rappers coming to take their throne (Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Kamaiyah, YG, Rae Sremmurd). Knowles sisters dazzled (Beyoncé, Solange), pop stars sizzled (Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande), and recluses reemerged (Frank Ocean, The Avalanches). Rock is not dead, whether you want your proof in classic form (Whitney, Steve Gunn, Angel Olsen), pop form (Chairlift, Japanese Breakfast), or rip-roaring riff form (Sheer Mag, Bent Shapes). And iconic, legendary artists bid their last, brilliant farewells (David Bowie, A Tribe Called Quest). Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, these songs from 2016 will probably remind me of pain, but I think those feelings of pain will be accompanied by the good memories that filled the cracks this year.

D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: Spotify Playlist
D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: YouTube Playlist

I hope the songs on this list either made a lasting impact on you this year, or that they will in the coming year as you check them out. I love celebrating good music and sharing in that celebration, so please comment freely about songs you love (or don’t love) and let’s talk about it.

One thing of note: I’ve been doing these ‘Best Songs’ lists for 10 years now. My first installment was in 2006, when the top song went to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, a choice that I still stand by. So, happy 10th anniversary!

Also, for the second year in a row, my wife Taylor has provided some superb cover art. There are a lot of hidden gems relating to the year in music, so spend some time with it and check it out.

It’s always a constant struggle to keep these lists to 50, so here are 15 songs that barely missed the cut:

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