Saturday, December 17, 2016

Favorite Albums of 2016


  1. Beyoncé - Lemonade
  2. Frank Ocean - Blonde
  3. badbadnotgood - IV
  4. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
  5. David Bowie - Blackstar
  6. Rihanna - Anti
  7. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
  8. The Weeknd - Starboy
  9. Bruno Mars - 24K Magic
  10. Alessia Cara - Know-It-All
  11. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
  12. Lady Gaga - Joanne
  13. Maren Morris - Hero
  14. Andy Shauf - The Party
  15. Emeli Sandé - Long Live the Angels
  16. Sia - This Is Acting
  17. The 1975 - I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
  18. The Hamilton Mixtape
  19. Britney Spears - Glory
  20. Drake - Views
  21. Whitney - Light Upon the Lake
  22. Carly Rae Jepsen - E・MO・TION: Side B
  23. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
  24. Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
  25. Wet - Don't You


Monday, December 05, 2016

Predicting Grammy Album of the Year: A Look at "Surprises"

I'm going to do something I haven't done since 2011: wade into the waters of predicting which albums will be nominated this year for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. (AOTY) Nominations will be announced December 6.

This year, the conventional thinking is that the five nominees will be Adele, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Drake and Radiohead. And guess what? That's probably going to be wrong, since every year--without fail--there is at least one surprise in the Grammy's top category. To try to get a handle on the AOTY "surprise factor," here's a look at what I viewed as the surprises in recent years.

2015

Nominees: Taylor Swift (winner), Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton

Last year was one of the easiest years to predict in recent memory. Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were considered locks, and The Weekend was a likely nominee. There was also quite a bit of talk about Alabama Shakes. Foo Fighters' omission was perhaps the biggest surprise; however, that Chris Stapleton got it instead wasn't a major upset, as he was definitely in the running (as was D'Angelo). This slate presents a nice balance of genres, better than if Foo Fighters had been nominated, since that would have yielded two rock albums.

Biggest surprise: No Foo Fighters

2014

Nominees: Beck (winner), Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell

This was a bigger surprise year. Beyoncé and Sam Smith looked like locks going into the nominations, but the other three nominees, although talked about to some extent (especially Beck), were certainly not universally considered frontrunners, especially Pharrell, whose name I do not recall at all in the talk before the nominations. Instead, there was considered talk for Jack White (a 2012 nominee), Miranda Lambert and Sia. The Frozen Soundtrack and Tony Bennett/Lady were also bandied about. Ed Sheeran's nomination was a surprise since, demographically, he's similar to Sam Smith (male, white, British, pop), and the nominees tend to be diverse. Pharrell was a surprise because although "Happy" was a massive hit, its parent album wasn't really. My hunch is that Pharrell's nomination may have been driven by his behind-the-scenes work, making him a bigger name among Grammy voters than music listeners.

Biggest surprise: Pharrell

2013

Nominees: Daft Punk (winner), Taylor Swift, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Sara Bareilles

This one almost went like clockwork, except for one major major doozy. Daft Punk, Taylor Swift and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were not at all surprises here. Kendrick Lamar was more a long shot, but he certainly had a lot of support. The big surprise here--and it was a huge one--was the inclusion of Sara Bareilles. Nobody was talking about this album as a potential nominee. It wasn't a particularly big album either commercially or critically. Yet, there it was. So who didn't make it? An equally big surprise for the omission of Justin Timberlake. His first album in 7 years looked like a sure-thing. However, I think his move to nominate The 20/20 Experience as a double album, rather than just submitting the vastly superior Part 1, may have been his undoing. Part 1 was a huge success: sales in the U.S. over 2 million and a 75 average at Metacritic--his highest among four albums. Part 2 was definitely less so: it sold less than half the copies as Part 1 and has a Metacritc average of 60--his lowest score. Submitting only Part 1 would've given voters a strong album with several hits (Mirrors, Suit & Tie). Submitting Part 1 and 2 provided them a bloated experience with a hit-and-miss second half.

Biggest surprise: No Justin Timberlake

2012

Nominees: Mumford & Sons (winner), Frank Ocean, The Black Keys, Jack White, Fun.

This was sort of an odd year, as there weren't a lot of obvious choices. There was some talk that Drake or Coldplay could be nominated, but I don't think it was a major shock that they were not.

Biggest surprise: Fun

2011

Nominees: Adele (winner), Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Rihanna

This was a year of a lot of surprises. Going into the race, I think most people assumed this would be a Kanye West vs. Adele contest. West had been nominated three times previously without a win, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his most acclaimed work yet. Its omission from the slate was a major surprise--probably the biggest of all the surprises mentioned here--and cleared the way for Adele's easy victory. The other thing that was a surprise was the dominance of pop music, with four of the five nominees. Bon Iver looked like a pretty good bet for alternative nomination, but instead it had to settle for a Record of the Year nomination for "Holocene."

Biggest surprise: No Kanye West

2016

So what do I suspect will the surprises this year? By their very nature, this is hard to predict. I think Beyoncé and Adele are clearly the safest picks this year, and consider them "safe" choices. Any of the other three could be vulnerable. My money is on David Bowie is being the least vulnerable, given the level of acclaim for his album, his untimely death early this year and Grammy's tendency to nominate well-established artists. Drake would be next on my list. For him is that the album was a major commercial success in an era where there are few highly successful albums; against him is that the album didn't get the greatest reviews. Yet, I doubt the Grammy folks would instead put up Kanye West, given his recent antics, or Chance the Rapper, who has yet to really break through to the mainstream. I think Radiohead is the most vulnerable. I like their album, but it's no OK Computer, Kid A or In Rainbows (their three albums that have been nominated). I think they could be displaced perhaps by a country album. Sturgill Simpson, Maren Morris and Margo Price all released acclaimed country albums this year that could draw enough support for putting a country album on the slate. A longer shot is Rihanna, whose Anti release turned out to be a surprisingly strong album.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best Albums of 2015


June 2016 edit: Since writing this list in December, I've fall hard for the Hamilton musical, which was released last year, but I didn't discover it until April. It's clearly my favorite album of the year, if not the decade so far, so I amended the list. I made a couple of other changes as well.
  1. Hamilton: An American Musical - Original Broadway Cast
  2. Adele - 25
  3. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
  4. Carly Rae Jepsen - E-mo-tion
  5. Tame Impala - Currents
  6. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
  7. Natalie Prass
  8. Kamasi Washington - The Epic
  9. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
  10. Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon
  11. Jamie XX - In Colour
  12. Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
  13. Leon Bridges - Coming Home
  14. Madonna - Rebel Heart
  15. Father John Misty - I Love You Honeybear
  16. Years & Years - Communion
  17. Twenty One Pilots - Blurryface
  18. New Order - Music Complete
  19. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable
  20. Donnie Trumpet& the Social Experiment - Surf
  21. Kelela -Hallucinogen
  22. Fifty Shades of Grey - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  23. Courtney Barnett - Something I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  24. One Direction - Made in the A.M.
  25. Mumford & Sons - Wilder Mind

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Albums of 2014


1. Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour. Smith's debut album was on repeat from the moment it was released last spring. I love his soulful lovelorn melodies, a pop debut that evokes Adele but charts it own course too. Best: Stay with Me

2. Taylor Swift - 1989. Swift went 100% pop on her fifth album, delivering her best set yet, possibly breaking the hooks-per-minute record. Best: Blank Space

3. St. Vincent. I found this lovely, weird album to be strangely captivating, a surprise favorite. Best: I Prefer Your Love

4. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence. I wasn't a major fan of Del Rey's debut, but I swooned for this second long-player drenched in dramatic retro cool. Best: Shades of Cool

5. Coldplay - Ghost Stories. After chasing bigger and poppier sounds for years, Coldplay dialed it back for this gentle, haunting set. Best: Midnight

6. Jessie Ware - Tough Love. Ware's sophomore set was as strong as her 2012 debut, rounded out by a stronger emotional bent. Best: Say You Love Me

7. Beck - Morning Phase. Beck's cinematic set, a surprise Grammy Album of the Year nominee, was the singer's best output in years. Best: Morning

8. La Roux - Trouble in Paradise. La Roux may be a solo act now, but she delivered as much great music as she did on her 2009 debut, continuing to effectively mine a retro dance sound. Best: Uptight Downtown

9. The Black Keys - Turn Blue. Another winning set from the blues rockers. Best: Fever

10. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream. Lots of artists have been making "'80s rock" in the last decade, but few put out an album of good as this. Best: Under the Pressure

11. Jack White - Lazaretto
12. Nick Jonas
13. Ed Sheehan - X
14. Ariana Grande - My Everything
15. Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear
16. U2 - Songs of Innocence
17. Michael Jackson - Xscape
18. Rumer - Into Colour
19. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
20. Eric Church - The Outsiders
21. Electric Youth - Innerworld
22. Aphex Twin - Syro
23. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
24. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire for No Witness
25. Charli XCX - Sucker
26. Take That - III
27. Perfume Genius - Too Bright
28. Wild Beasts - Present Tense
29. Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
30. Metronomy - Love Letters

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best Albums of 2013


I haven't written much on my music blog this year. In fact, I haven't written anything, instead focusing on my food blog, Cook In / Dine Out. Nonetheless, I remain a committed fan of popular music, so I still wanted to share this list of my favorite albums this year.

1. Beyoncé. All year long I waited to see if Beyoncé would release a new album. I'd basically forgotten it was a possibility by the time she released it the other week without any advance warning, promotion or single. In a year of twerking, nudie music videos and folk-pop, it was 2013's most stunning pop music move. Once you got past the immediate firestorm of hype, it was clear that the album wasn't just a way to get press, but rather a fully formed, majestic pop album that finds Beyoncé at the top of her game, singing about societal expectations, loss, motherhood and sex...lots of sex. The flawless production is current, but doesn't just copy what's on the radio. The songs don't immediately sound like hits, but after a few listens they get under your skin and stay there. To top it off, each one already has a video on the "visual album," and many of them are stunning works of art in their own right too. This is, quite frankly, a pop music masterpiece. Best tracks: Pretty Hurts, XO, Haunted, Blow, Heaven.

2. London Grammar - If You Wait. Imagine if The XX teamed up with Florence and the Machine and went for something a little more commercial and you might get close to the winning formula on this lovely debut. Best tracks: Strong, Wasting My Years.

3. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Part 1). After a 7-year hiatus from music, JT returned with this brilliant pop album. Along with buddy-collaborator Timbaland, the team proved they still have what it takes (such a shame that part 2, released later in the year was such a letdown). Best tracks: Pusher Love Girl, Mirrors.

4. Bastille - Bad Blood. "Pompeii" was a staple on the UK singles chart this year, but Bastille's debut offers many other gems from the British indie rockers. I like this album because the songs are quite tuneful. Best tracks: Things We Lost in the Fire, Pompeii.

5. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires in the City. Vampire Weekend emerged on the scene with a lot of hype when their 2008 debut dropped. It wasn't until this third album though that I thought the group really found their sound. No longer just sounding like Paul Simon, the band really came into their own this with work. Best tracks: Hannah Hunt, Diane Young.

6. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories. They may be EDM pioneers, but on Random Access Memories, the French duo immersed themselves in old-school sounds of '70s funk and disco. Best tracks: Get Lucky, Giorgio by Moroder.

7. Lorde - Pure Heroine. Big names like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga were all vying to top the Hot 100 chart this fall. But it was this album's single "Royals" that proved Americans were really more interested in the haunting charms of this 16- (now 17) year-old New Zealand newcomer. Best tracks: Royals, Team.

8. Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull. I was surprised not to see this on more year-end lists, for I thought the songs were particularly memorable on this album, one of my favorite rock albums of the fall. Best tracks: Comeback Story, Supersoaker.

9. Lady Gaga - Artpop. Sure, this album got overhyped and then music critics slammed it for not quite living up to its promise of "high art meets pop music." But lower your expectations to something reasonable and you'll hear it for what it really is: just a great dance pop album. Best tracks: Do What U Want, Artpop.

10. My Bloody Valentine - MBV. I love the textures of sound on this album, which at first sounds like a lot of feedback but which is clearly carefully constructed to create a dreamy, otherworldly rock sound. Best tracks: Only Tomorrow, New You.

11. Goldfrapp - Tales of Us. Tales of Us was the strongest Goldfrapp album since Supernature, focusing on the group's flair for dark, dramatic tracks. Best: Annabel.

12. Phoenix - Bankrupt! After breaking out big with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the French new wave band returned with this great album along similar '80s-loving lines. Best: S.O.S. in Bel Air.

13. Haim - Days Are Gone. Propelled by undeniably catchy single "The Wire," California trio Haim's debut manages a timeless pop-rock sound that stretches from the '70s to today. Best: The Wire.

14. Arctic Monkeys - AM. Taking a darker and more beat-driven direction for this fifth album paid off for the British rockers, whose "Do You Wanna Know" became a trans-Atlantic alternative rock hit. Best: Do You Wanna Know.

15. The National - Trouble Will Find Me. Similar to their last album, High Violet, which I absolutely loved, Trouble Will Find Me finds the band continuing in the same vein of beauty and grandeur. Best: Demons.

16. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork. Sporting an impressive lineup of guests that range from Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Dave Grohl to Scissors Sisters' Jake Shears and even Elton John, this album could sound like too-many-cooks, but it comes off as a surprisingly unified old-school rocker. Best: Kalopsia.

17. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe. This Scottish band's debut is a top pick this year for synth-pop lovers with crisp beats and '80s-inspired melodies. Best: The Mother We Share.

18. Disclosure - Settle. With this winning debut, English Duo Disclosures proves that a dance music album isn't an oxymoron. I love the House tracks, but my favorite song is the lovely closing track featuring aforementioned London Grammar. Best: Help Me Lose My Mind.

19. Kanye West - Yeezus. His sixth album is Kanye West's hardest-hitting yet, a barage of sound and fury. After the sprawling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and album I loved), Yeezus feels much more compact and focused. Best: Black Skinhead.

20. Arcade Fire - Reflektor. Canadian rockers that have been the "it" indie darlings for almost a decade now teamed up with former LCD frontman James Murphy on this fourth disc and the electronic influence is evident. Reflektor starts out strong and although it loses some steam in the second half, is still a worthwhile entry in the group's rich catalog. Best: Reflektor.

21. Pet Shop Boys - Electric. After working magic with Madonna, The Killers, Scissor Sisters, Kylie and Take That, producer Stuart Price turns the knobs with the Pet Shop Boys on this propulsive dance pop album, PSB's highest-energy output in over a decade. Best: Love Is a Bourgeois Construct.

22. Avicii - True. Following a string of dance club hits, Avicii finally released an album this year, blending his EDM/dance sound with an unlikely but effective partner: folk-pop. The combination turned "Wake Me Up" into one of the year's biggest hits and also produced the great follow-up hit, "Hey Brother." Best: Hey Brother.

23. Katy Perry - Prism. After her massively successful Teenage Dream, which lobbed #1 hit after #1 hit, Katy Perry offers a similarly slick pop follow-up, albeit with a slightly more mature focus. Best: Birthday.

24. Matthew E. White - Big Inner. This EP, released early in the year, was the first many had heard of Matthew E. White. At its best, the album is a like a '70s throwback: alternative rock tinged with jazz, country and soul. Best: Big Love.

25. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts. Grant's second album sometimes sounds likes his folkish debut, but then takes off in new electronic directions, mining some pretty dark territory but retaining humor too. Best: GMF.

Honorable mentions: Solange, Tegan and Sara, Rhye, Sara Bareilles, James Blake, Dido

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Best Albums of 2012


As regular readers of this blog know, I've basically moved on from writing about pop music to writing full-force about cooking and restaurants on Cook In / Dine Out. But I didn't want the year to go by without sharing my list of the best albums of 2012. I may not be writing about music, but it's still part of my life.

1. Taylor Swift - Red. Not what I expected would top my list, but it's a work of undeniably great country pop songs, creating a mix of sounds that still adhere cohesively into an album. Swift's greatest work yet, showing the consistency of her last album, Speak Now, with the pop hooks of her 2008 Grammy Album of the Year-winning Fearless. Essential: "I Knew You Were Trouble," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "Red."

2. Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne. I'd never listened to Saint Etienne before, but I fell hard for the British indie-dance group's eighth album, the year's best work of dance pop. Essential:  "Over the Border," "I've Got Your Music," "Popular."

3. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange. Ocean's mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, made my list last year, when I said he was tipped to break out as a major star this year. Couldn't have been more right about that--Ocean's success is one of the year's biggest music stories. His background almost overshadows the soulful beauty of this R&B debut that deftly mixes old-school sensibility with modern electronic production. Essential: "Thinkin Bout You," "Super Rich Kids," "Lost."

4. Jessie Ware - Devotion. British singer Ware's Devotion offers up gorgeous electronic pop. A stunning debut that sounds best after the sun goes down. Essential: "Wildest Moments," "Running," "Sweet Talk."

5. Jack White - Blunderbuss. White Stripes are over, but Jack White continues to make great music. This solo work, nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, is as close as we've gotten to a White Stripes album as good as Elephant. Essential: "Missing Pieces," "Hypocritical Kiss"

6. The XX - Coexist. I devoured The XX's 2009 self-titled debut (I listed it as #4 on my 2009 recap, but, in retrospect, it deserved #1). This follow-up is almost as good, residing in similar slinky, minimalist synth territory. Essential: "Reunion," "Fiction."

7. Mumford & Sons - Babel. The British folk rockers' second album managed to cement their status as one of the world's hottest bands, a unlikely status for sure, but certainly deserved after the success of their first album. Similar to and probably just as good as Sigh No More. Essential: "I Will Wait," "Hopeless Wanderer."

8. Rihanna - Unapologetic. Rihanna's seventh (!) album is markedly better than her disappointing Talk That Talk and more consistent even than her 2010 hit Loud. Basically, it resurrects the dark themes from Rated R and wraps them around a mash-up of pop stylings a la Loud or Good Girl Gone Bad. Essential: "Loveeeeeee Song," "Stay."

9. Maccabees - Given to the Wild. Although it's the third album from the British rock group, the atmospheric Given to the Wild is something of a breakthrough for the group. Essential: "Ayla," "Pelican."

10. Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox. Mars avoids the sophomore slump with this naughty but still lovable second album, kissed with touches of Motown, disco and even The Police. A worthy successor to Doo-Wops and Hooligans. Essential: "Locked Out of Heaven," "Moonshine."

11. Beach House - Bloom. Baltimore "dream pop" group's fourth album is lovely and lush. Let it float you away. Essential: "Myth."

12. Alicia Keys - Girl on Fire. It's been awhile since I bought an Alicia Keys album. This, her fifth, shows Keys is still the classiest act in R&B. It's tempting just to listen to her beautiful piano intro over-and-over, but then you'd miss her singing, which seems to only get better. Essential: "Girl on Fire."

13. Daughn Gibson - All Hell. A little bit country, a little bit rock & roll and a lot of darkness is a good way to describe Gibson's haunting solo debut. Essential: "A Young Girl's World."

14. Pink - The Truth About Love. Now onto her sixth album, Pink continues to prove she's one of pop music's most consistent, if not under-appreciated, talents. Essential: "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)."

15. Fun. - Some Nights. This indie pop group made a big splash this year with their energetic second album. Essential: "We Are Young."

16. Scissor Sisters - Magic Hour. "Let's Have a Kiki" may have become a gay dance club anthem this year, but it's only one reason to love the fourth album from this just-outside-the-mainstream pop group. Essential: "Only the Horses."

17. Maroon 5 - Overexposed. Maroon 5 looked to be on the way out (or at least down) after their third album, Hands All Over, initially failed to generate a major hit. Then came The Voice, "Moves Like Jagger," and this album's massive first single, "Payphone," (and it's even bigger follow-up, "One More Night") and the band is hotter than they've ever been. A true pop music comeback story. Essential: "One More Night."

18. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again. This soulful debut from the BBC Sounds of 2012 winner reaches back to the '70s for its lush, gentle melodies. Essential: "I'm Getting Ready."

19. Emeli Sandé - Our Version of Events. Another retro-soul album, but totally different from Kiwanuka's. I like her best when she throws a little trip-hop in the mix, like "Heaven," which plays like a sequel to Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy." Essential: "Next to Me."

20. Escort - Escort. I wouldn't call this "retro" or "new disco," it's just plain disco, so faithfully does it reproduce the sound of dance music from 1978-1980. Essential: "Caméleon Chameleon."

21. Christopher Guglick - Earth Shaker. if you like piano-based singer-songwriter pop, here's a name you should become familiar with. He's not big yet, but just wait. I think bigger things are on the way (Guglick is reportedly working on a dance pop album for 2013--can't wait). Essential: "Hold on Tight."

22. Twin Shadow - Confess. The new wave revival may be rather long in the tooth at this point, but Twin Shadow's Confess makes a case for keeping it around just a little bit longer. Essential: "Five Seconds."

23. Madonna - MDNA. Madonna makes me list, but considering that most of her other albums would have topped the equivalent lists for their release years means this album was a disappointment, lacking the consistency and creativity she's known for. Nonetheless, there are some gems here, including the ballad "Masterpiece," which would have sounded at home on 1995's Something to Remember. Essential: "Girl Gone Wild."

24. Esperanza Spalding - Radio Music Society. Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 and followed it with this, her fourth album. Essential: "Black Gold."

25. Robbie Williams - Take the Crown. Reinvigorated by fatherhood and the recent Take That reunion, Williams continues to prove he's one of pop music's singular voices. Take the Crown is more synth-driven than his other albums and continues to show his typically good hear for a pop hook. Essential: "Candy."

Friday, September 21, 2012