We are nearing the end of August but summer doesn’t show any sign of packing up and moving on. Around here it’s still hotter than the devil’s breath on the back of my neck. On the positive side, though, summer is always a time when I think about music, so this post is focused on listening rather than writing.
During my high school years (a vague memory), summer for me meant transistor radios and boom boxes competing on the beach or at pool side. Today everyone has an iPod or smart phone which is streaming a personal soundtrack that no one else is privy to. When I was a teenager the practice was to publicly share music and keep phone conversations private. Today that is the polar opposite, so the act of discovery—as far as music goes—is a little different these days. You are on your own for the most part.
Today, I am as guilty as the next guy about plugging in my earphones and tuning out. I use music as an aural envelope to isolate me from the distractions of the world around me as I commute from home to office and back again. I listen to a wide range of stuff and thought that I would share my favorite recording artists in the hopes that you might “discover” something new. My iTunes library has over 110 days worth of non-stop, unrepeated tunes, nearly 100 gigabytes of music. I must confess that I listen to only a fraction of what I have amassed, but it’s there if I ever want to access it.
I have eclectic musical tastes and I tend towards more obscure artists but there are plenty mainstream bands that make it into the rotation on my iPod. I would break down my musical consumption into several genres:
Indie/Alternative is the most prevalent genre that I listen to so I will focus on that in detail. Here is a sampling of a dozen bands that have taken up residence on my iPod:
The Black Keys: their Brothers album doesn’t have a bad song on it but these two guys have been around for a while. Check out their 2008 album called Attack and Release for some equally strong material. Listen to “Everlasting Light” and “She’s long Gone.” Their most recent album is El Camino and boasts 11 great new songs.
Cake: Formed in the early 1990s the band has remained together to the present releasing their last album in 2011, but for me their defining album is Comfort Eagle which contains the cut “Short Skirt Long Jacket.” “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” is from Fashion Nugget which is an equally strong album from the Scramento, CA band.
The Dodos: A guitar and drums duo that provide a rich and full musical experience. They have 4 albums out. Visiter from 2008 has the most energy and I think it is their strongest album. No Color is their most recent release which most critics hailed as a return to a stronger sound after straying briefly on their third release Time to Die (which many didn’t like but I personally find little fault with). Listen to “Fools,” “Red and Purple” and “Ashley” from the Visiter album.
Frightened Rabbit: Hails from Scotland and they have recorded 4 albums but I am only familiar with their 2010 release titled The Winter of Mixed Drinks. The songs “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” and “The Loneliness and the Scream” are standout cuts on an excellent album. A new release is expected in early 2013.
Kings of Leon: They formed in 1999 but didn’t gain widespread notoriety until the release of their fourth album Only by the Night in 2008, which I believe is their strongest album. It was followed two years later with Come Around Sundown, which is good but is more on the mellow side.“Sex on Fire” was the break out single from their 2008 album.
Man Man: I recently stumbled across this band’s 2012 release entitled Life Fantastic, which I have absolutely falen in love with. There is a lot of grit and growl on this album and a creative approache to percussion that reminds me of some of Tom Waits’ later albums. Listen to “Knuckle Down,” “Steak Knives,” and “Haute Tropique” to get an idea of what they are currently all about. I have given some of their earlier albums a cursory spin but do not find them very listenable.
Maps & Atlases: A Chicago band with a unique sound. Guitarist and vocalist Dave Davidson has a voice reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or Steve Winwood. They have two full length albums and a scattering of EPs. Their newest release, Beware and Be Grateful, is a strong album and you should listen to the songs “Fever” and “Remote and Dark Years” to get a feel for what they are like.
Neko Case: Is a solo artist who is also a member of a band called The New Pornographers. I am a big fan of her solo material but I don’t really follow the The New Pornographers. Neko’s Blacklisted (2002), Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) and Middle Cyclone (2009) are all very strong albums. She has a clear and haunting voice and her work flirts with being on the border of alt-country but I would be reluctant to classify her in that genre. Check out the cuts “People Gotta Lotta Nerve” “This Tornado Loves You” and “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” for a fair sample of her signature sound.
OK Go: I would be remiss if I did not include this Los Angeles (by way of Chicago) band fronted by vocalist Damian Kulash. They are popular for their wildly inventive and viral music videos, which have been responsible for exposing a wide audience to their well crafted and performed music. Oh No was their 2006 break out album which was eventually followed up by the superb Of the Blue Colour of the Sky release in 2010. “Here It Goes Again” and “This Too Shall Pass” are personal favorites by this stand out band.
Potugal. The Man: It is difficult to characterize their sound. They are bit of a modern day twist on a mix between the Beatles (from their White Album days) and Supertramp. Two albums that I can highly recommend by this band are American Ghetto and In the Mountain in the Cloud. Listen to the cuts “The Dead Dog” “When the War Ends” and “Got it All” for a good sample of what they are all about.
The Shins: Currently based in Portland, Oregon, the band began in New Mexico as a side project in 1997. In 2001 they released their first full length album. They built their fan base with a follow up release in 2003 and finally gained wider popularity in 2007 with the album Wincing the Night Away. Listen to “New Slang,” “Australia,” “Phantom Limb,” and “Simple Song.” Port of Morrow is there most current album, which was released in March of this year.
Spoon: I’ll wrap up this indies discussion with this Austin Texas band fronted by Britt Daniel. They have an impressive discography of seven full length albums and an equal number of EPs that they have released since 1996. I have all of their full albums since 2001 and I don’t think there is a bad one among them (I can’t speak to Telephono or A Series of Sneaks, their first two albums). The band Spoon is similar in sound, intelligence and wit to the band Cake (already discussed). To get a good feel for what this band has to offer, listen to the cuts “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” “The Fitted Shirt” and “Stay Don’t Go.”
Here are a few lists of artists broken down by genre that I recommend. I won’t go into detail but if you have a Spotify account or search YouTube for these artists you are certain to get a taste of them. I have tried to provide SoundCloud or YouTube clips representative of each artist. You can also go to Amazon.com or the iTunes store and listen to 30 second (or longer) clips of all available songs by any artist.
If Blues are your thing then must-listen-to artists should include: Sue Foley, Chris Smither, Otis Taylor, Susan Tedeschi, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. You can’t go wrong with nay of these artists. Stevie Ray Vaugh, however, is the consumate blues guitar man.
Jazz is a huge and broad genre of music. I am not a jazz expert but there are many artists that I like, which include: Jean Luc Ponty (violin), Bill Evans (piano), St. Germain (house jazz), Caravan Palace (electro-swing), Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Contemporary Swing Revival), Caro Emerald (Vocal Jazz), and Chick Corea (more piano). The extra recommendation in this group goes to Caravan Palace. They are fabulous and have dominated my playlist this summer. Definitely check them out.
Some of my choices in the Contemporary Rock/Pop genre may cross over into the indie arena but I would highly recommend J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Fun, Jukebox the Ghost, and Smash Mouth. Roddy Walston is some great straight up rock and roll and Jukebox the Ghost have produced some of the sunniest pop I heard in a long time.
Singer/Songwriters are solo artists that write and perform their own work and often defy or cross genres. The artists that I would recommend from this category are: April Smith and the Great Picture Show, Eva Cassidy, Leo Kottke, and Peter Case. Out of these four, April Smith is the winner. She has a fabulous voice and a great sense of humor. Peter Case is no slouch either. I have every album by him and he has earned a permanent place on my iPod.
I hope that there is something here that pleases the ear. What are your favorite bands? Who is the most obscure recording artist that you wish more people knew about. Share your favorites here. Let’s build a playlist!