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Best Albums of 2016

The uniting factor among the albums that made my Best of 2016 list is that every one of them actively seeks to blur boundaries of genre. Devoted readers of my Best of lists will not be surprised by this, as musical curiosity and willingness to infuse different styles are some of my most desired traits in music. I can’t claim that I listened to a lot of music this year, but this list is fairly diverse, with styles ranging from country to jazz. Below is my list of (an increasingly arbitrary number of) favorite albums for the year:   12) Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN – Chicago folk artist Angel Olsen amps up the energy considerably in her latest effort. WOMAN is still guided by her intimate and pained vocals, but the music here benefits from an increased range of styles, ranging from the aching balladry of “Intern” to the punkish rancor of “Shut Up, Kiss Me” to the flat-out epic rock of “Sister”.   Essential listening: “Sister”, “Heart Shaped Face”     11) Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book – Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper punctuated his rise to public and critical acclaim with this neo-gospel/hip-hop album, which synthesizes his admiration more »

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Best Albums of 2015

One thing I noticed as I reviewed my Best-of list for 2014 was that several of the albums were notably brief. My #1 album from last year (Sleepy Kitty’s Projection Room) clocked in at a tight 37 minutes. This year – not so much. My top 3 albums this year are all over an hour, and my favorite album of 2015 is, well, a bit longer than that. Long winded? Not when what you have to say is so compelling.   Honorable Mention: Jon Benjamin, Well, I Should Have…* – As in, “Well, I should have learned how to play piano.” Comedian and voice-over artist extraordinaire recorded a jazz album featuring himself on piano. No, he does not play piano. Instead, he created an absurd, Andy Kaufman-esque experiment with some legit studio guys lending support. It seems like the shtick would wear thin over a full album, but somehow it remains hilarious.   Essential Listening: “I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 3”, “It Had to Be You”     17) Wilco, Star Wars – Though not as expansive or experimental as some of their recent output, Wilco returned this year with a surprise (and free!) album featuring A.M.-esque roots-rock. Contributions from more »

Van-Morrison

4 for IV, Part IV: Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and the IV Chord That Isn’t There

On its surface, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” seems like an odd choice to include in an analytic series devoted to the IV chord, not to mention to devote an entire entry towards. The song does have a couple IV chords (two, though the section in which they appear returns later in the song), but it is not really an integral part of the song’s harmony. However, much of the song implies this chord (and, specifically, a plagal progression) without actually articulating it, which presents a use for this chord on a level not discussed yet.   In this inevitable, eponymous conclusion to my “4 for IV” series (Parts I, II, and III can be found at the provided links), I examine Van Morrison’s subconscious use of the plagal progression in “Into the Mystic”.   Here’s the studio recording of the song, followed by the functional harmonic (key of Eb Major) and formal analyses of the music:   A: Eb* (I) |     |     |     | Bb (V) |     | Eb (I) |     | *liberal mix of Ebsus   B: Gm (iii) | Ab (IV) | Eb (I) |     | Gm (iii) | Ab (IV) | Bb (V) |     |   more »

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4 for IV, Part III: IV Chords in Sleepy Kitty’s “Projection Room”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the music of Sleepy Kitty, no need to feel ashamed. They have gone on national tours, but they are mostly a cult favorite in the Midwest. This is particularly true in their adopted hometown of St. Louis, where they have received glowing accolades from the beloved institution that is The Riverfront Times. The band consists of only singer/guitarist/keyboardist Paige Brubeck and drummer Evan Suit (formerly of Harvey Danger), and they have been a strikingly ambitious band, having engaged in various multimedia projects, including providing the music for a staged adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Still, their music remains very much under the radar – I only discovered them through a random comment on an article from The AV Club.   To date, they have released two albums: 2011’s Infinity City and 2014’s Projection Room. The latter of these is a fantastic record – I ranked it as my #1 album from last year, and it has continued to grow on me. Their sound is very eclectic within the rock/pop genre. Some songs are reminiscent of the 90’s/early 00’s angst of Hole and The Distillers (“Godard Antagonist Infection”), others have more »

TMBG

4 for IV, Part II: IV Chords & Tonal Ambiguity/Modulation

In Part I of this series, I examined the secondary plagal progression, which is a unique way in which rock/pop composers have extended the established sound of a IV-I plagal progression. Another common technique that demonstrates the evolution of the IV chord is the incorporation of tonal instability through its presence in a harmonic progression. Generally, rock/pop music is not lacking for a tonal/modal center. However, some songs use the comforting and predictable sound of a plagal progression to introduce either tonal ambiguity or a full-fledged modulation.   Green Day, “Warning”   Despite its lack of overdriven electric guitars, “Warning” is very much a prototypical Green Day song because it only uses three different chords the whole way through. Yet these three chords (one of which is a secondary plagal chord) present an unexpected analytical challenge that lends a subtle sense of ambiguity to the song’s tonality.   Except for the song’s bridge and start of its third verse (which both simply vamp an A chord), the entire song uses the following progression. For those not familiar with my notation, vertical lines indicate barlines, diagonal slashes between chords indicate multiple chords in the same measure, and lead-sheet symbols and Roman more »

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4 for IV, Part I: Secondary Plagal Progressions

Before beginning my analysis for this project, I didn’t really know much about The Go-Go’s. I knew they were an all female band from the 80’s that had some cheesy hits, but that was about the extent of it.   Knowledge and perspective can be funny things. I’m not ready to anoint them as successors to The Beatles or anything, but knowing what I do now, I certainly have a much greater respect for their musicianship.   As the introduction to this series discussed, the IV chord has a crucial role in rock/pop music harmonic progressions, particularly in relation to how the harmony is used in concert music. Songwriters have grown to love the chord so much that they have pioneered ways of using it that have given its function fresh vitality and have helped to further distinguish this genre from others.   Understanding Secondary Plagal Function   Perhaps the most common of these unique applications of the IV chord (and, specifically, its plagal function) is the use of secondary plagal progressions. A plagal progression results from a chord built on the fourth degree of the scale resolving directly to the tonic chord, with the root of the former being more »

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4 for IV: Introduction

Rock musicians just can’t resist a plagal progression, and I think I know why.   Perhaps it’s part of their nonconformist nature. Classical/concert and rock/pop music share more in common than most people from either side would be willing to admit, and whether it is done consciously or subconsciously, rock music contains several of concert music’s established traditions regarding melody, rhythm, and other musical elements. There are obvious differences, particularly regarding timbre and orchestration, but one of the more subtle points of departure between the genres is their approach to the chord built on the fourth scale degree of the given key (consisting of scale degrees 4, 6, and 1), which will be referred to hence forth as a IV chord (traditionally, diatonic triads are referred to by Roman Numerals, using upper case for major chords and lower case for minor).   In classical music, the IV chord is, outside of the tonic (I) chord, the most versatile diatonic harmony, but it is most frequently used as a predominant chord. A predominant chord, as its name would imply, introduces dominant (built on scale degree 5; a V chord) harmony. However, the IV chord is used less commonly as a predominant more »

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Best Albums of 2014

If there’s one common thread among the 20 albums to make my list this year, it’s eclecticism. The emergence of services like Spotify and even YouTube not only make finding a wider gamut of music possible, it also undoubtedly influences those who make the music. Not only do the artists represented here exemplify a wider spectrum of genre than I’ve ever had before, the albums themselves often integrate several styles within their own confines.   In a true testament to the quality of music I discovered this year, this was probably the most difficult year-end ranking I’ve ever had to form, and the gap from top to bottom is probably narrower than any I can remember. I can’t claim to have listened to all of the musics, but I have expanded my field from years past because there was just so much good music out there this year. For your enjoyment:   20) Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 – Well regarded as solo artists, the styles of Killer Mike and El-P complement each other nicely, and they creatively mix their roles by trading both verses and lines. El-P’s production is also solid, and he adds subtle unexpected twists more »

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Out Through the In Door: Analyzing the Dissonance in Ingrid Jensen’s Solo from “Transit”

The title is ultimately a Led Zeppelin reference (not too surprising, seeing as how one of my previous blog entries was an analysis of the alluded album), but it is relevant here for a couple reasons. First, Infernal Machines – the debut CD from New York-based big band Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – is heavily influenced by rock acts such as Led Zeppelin. Second, it is emblematic of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s approach towards using dissonance. She plays out, but she does so in a densely logical way.   Like many songs from Infernal Machines, “Transit” is a predominantly spacious composition that is driven by an ostinato vamp. This ostinato can essentially be reduced to a two-measure syncopated octave figure in the bass, which establishes both the piece’s rhythmic vitality and its D minor tonic (E minor for the Bb trumpet – since the transcription is in the trumpet’s key, I will refer to tonic as E minor from this point forward). This figure evolves beyond its simple gesture, and while the harmony does not always adhere to the E pedal, it is still unchangingly modal throughout. The harmony that develops tends to be the result of counterpoint in the more »

Nirvana

New Smell: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Craft of Arranging

“My thing is change it up completely or leave it alone.” – Robert Glasper For whatever reason, arranging is seen as a lesser craft than composing. I’ve never really understood this. Granted, composing entails the creation of entirely new material, while arranging depends on previously existing source material. Aside from this, though, I see far more similarities than differences between them, particularly when arranging is done with the same creative spirit as composition. Both have the potential to bring something new and wonderful into the world of music, and a great arrangement can take even the most well known song and transform it into something radically unique and refreshingly relevant. Take, for example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is arguably one of the most influential pieces of music of any genre from the past 25 years. Even people who never listen to rock music know this song, and it has been played and covered so often that you can understand if people have grown tired of it. Despite this, there is still fertile ground for creativity within its seemingly constricting bounds. After examining some of the basic musical elements of the original, I will discuss how three unique arrangements more »