Prefab Sprout

2nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2013 Edition)

Yes, despite the fact that everyone else in the ENTIRE FREE WORLD is compiling their best of list, I have to add my random-almost-invisible-blogger list to the pile, too.

I’m still light years behind in film and television (academic demands have pulled my attentions elsewhere) so this is all about the music.

Here are the albums that are, in my opinion, the five finest works of 2013.

5. Boards of Canada, “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

BoC has been around for almost 20 years – I’ve just discovered them in the last few years, as I’ve sought out new soundscapes and started to explore ambient, electronic music. I loved their earlier work, often compared to the soundtracks of 1970s filmstrips.

While much of that earlier music had a sense of warm nostalgia, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” had a darker sound to it. It was well worth the long wait since their last album, and pieces like “Reach for the Dead” were great works.

4. Bibio, “Silver Wilkinson” 

Bibio’s been working in a vein that really speaks to me: combining electronic sounds with more traditional, guitar-based structures. Like Boards of Canada, he’s also really great at creating a whole soundscape that sets a mood.

Bibio’s music also has a wonderful thread of joy and wonder running through it. After a funk detour with “Mind Bokeh,” this was a return to the hybrid that Bibio’s been creating, and it was a mainstay on my playlist this year.

3. Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

I’ve loved the masterful songwriting of Paddy McAloon for many years, and the earlier catalog of Prefab Sprout remains a constant on my spin list. But the hopes of a new Prefab album had been all but forsaken. The last truly new work (Gunman and Other Stories) just didn’t speak to me, and while I enjoyed the release of Let’s Change The World With Music a few years back, it was a “lost” album from the mid-90s.

I also didn’t expect any new releases because of McAloon’s double-whammy health conditions – a visual impairment and a case of tinnitus that’s affected him for years.

So to hear Crimson/Red at all is a joy. For it to be so damn good is a gift. There are many songs that stand with the best of McAloon’s underappreciated songwriting, but for me, “List of Impossible Things” is achingly, hauntingly beautiful, and at 56, McAloon’s voice still sounds as swoonworthy as it did years ago.

2. Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” 

I loved Monae’s new album. Monae, to me, is one of the most exciting new artists to come along in years. I remain mystified that Monae isn’t a megastar, though I wonder if the mythology of her albums – the android symbolism, the emotional remove of singing in character – is keeping some listeners from tuning in.

Electric Lady was another ambitious work and it (almost completely) worked. Few songs this year were as fun and funky as the title track. Heads exploded when Monae and the iconic Erykah Badu  joined forces for “Q.U.E.E.N.” (That track had an amazing video – Monae and Badu onscreen together is, in a word, electric.)

While the album is a shade long – and its spoken interludes have been criticized in the press  – it’s an achievement for Monae, who is making the most intelligent – and most fun – hybrid of pop and R&B out there.

Electric Lady reaches high heights in its final third, with the emotional “Ghetto Woman” and “Victory,” repeating, almost mantralike, “To be victorious/You must find glory in the little things.”

And my number one album of 2013:

1. Alison Moyet, “The Minutes”

I’ve been a fan of Moyet for 30 years, since she hit the scene with Yazoo. And I’ve loved Moyet in all her faces and voices.

But like several of my favorite artists – including Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and Kirsty MacColl – Moyet has had repeated run-ins with several record labels. Despite her magnificent voice (one that can sing any style) and great batches of songs, it seemed like the only thing several of Moyet’s labels were any good at was getting in her way.

Her 2002 album Hometime was a high-water mark, but while I also loved Moyet’s subsequent albums, it seemed like she was increasingly pigeonholed by the industry, only “allowed” to make a certain kind of record, perpetual sequels of sorts to her 80s jazz cover of the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love.”

Moyet had embraced a wide range of genres – including a stint in a West End production of “Chicago” – but the more diverse her explorations, the more she seemed to be pigeonholed. In 2012 came news that Moyet and her label were parting ways, and it seemed unlikely that any new Moyet music was soon to be forthcoming.

Just over a year later, The Minutes was released. And it is a triumph in every possible way.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. At 52, Moyet is in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements that range from electronic to more mainstream rock (“When I Was Your Girl”) and even hinting at dubstep (“Changeling”). There’s so much great songwriting here, especially with tracks like “Remind Yourself,” “Horizon Flame,” and the exquisite “Filigree.”

Moyet seems to be more comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Changeling:

When I Was Your Girl:

Other notable stuff:

A few other notable music notes for the year:

Getting lucky: I know that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a divisive song, with a hipster backlash against it almost from the start.

Whatever. I loved it – it’s got a fun vibe and it did remind me of those 70s and 80s disco songs, songs that seemed to have warmth and love instead of a sterile coldness and an ugly violence in them, as I hear in so much contemporary dubstep and dance. (It also didn’t have the ugly subtext of its fellow radio earworm “Blurred Lines.”)

Welcome back: Another welcome return this year was Boy George, who released a new album. He’s also appeared on a few tracks as a guest vocalist.

Best new artist: 

There were few new artists I really liked this year – most of them sound like really tinny versions of 80s synthpop bands – but I really liked Junip, especially their song “Your Life Your Call.”  (Though the video IS odd….)

So what did you love? Hate? What are you hoping for musically in 2014?

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Music Monday: Faith, God and rock and roll

Music speaks to a wide range of human passions and human experiences – whether it’s rock and roll, country twang, rap music or a symphony. And people who are passionate about faith and about God have used music to express that passion.

Let’s be honest, though: the genre known as “Christian rock” has produced some profoundly awful music – particularly back in the 80s and 90s, when the attempt to merge those two ideas was executed quite poorly by some major record labels.

But there’s been some really great, thoughtful music in the last five to ten years from artists that we’d consider ‘mainstream rock artists, and that music has come forth in a very organic way. They explore their faith and their God in their songs. I think by avoiding that “Christian Music” label  (which is, as all sales of music are, 98% about PR and where the music fits in a sales environment), it allows people to just hear the songs and experience them.

A few of the mainstream artists that have mentioned faith in their music:

Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite artists. He’s got some inventive takes on rock and folk and I love his arrangements. His faith was a subject in a lot of the initial interviews he gave, and he was reluctant to speak about it. His attitude was that his music said it all. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of the more heartfelt songs where Stevens tackles a religious theme.

The Innocence Mission has been around for over twenty years, and their music has always referred to their faith, in ways both subtle and obvious. Without directly mentioning God, lead singer Keren Paris draws from religious imagery in the song “Now In This Hush.”

Prefab Sprout has been around for even longer – about 30 years – and band leader and lead singer Paddy McAloon is critically acclaimed for being the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter of contemporary pop music. But McAloon has always worn his faith on his sleeve. The band’s most famous album, Jordan: The Comeback is about God. Or Jesus. Or Elvis. Possibly all three. McAloon’s output has been diminished significantly in recent years as he’s lost a significant amount of vision and hearing from health ailments (including severe tinnitus), but a few years ago the band released Let’s Change The World With Music, which has several songs with vivid religious imagery.

I can think of no pop song as deeply vested with Biblical imagery than Prefab Sprout’s song “One Of The Broken,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

And perhaps the most controversial person I’ll mention here: Sinead O’Connor.

I know people remember her ripping the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live – a topic I addressed in an earlier post – but this is a person who is still actively exploring and  questioning her faith and the meaning of it in her life. Which I think makes for some very compelling music. And no one in contemporary pop music is exploring faith in their music as often and as thoroughly as O’Connor.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be a number from a Broadway song, but it takes on many more layers when O’Connor, who’s herself been a clergywoman, sings it.

Her latest album ends with the stunning “VIP,” which questions crass commercialism and celebrity culture and designates God as her VIP.

Sinead’s songs always make me really think about matters of faith and about how she examines those ideas. She’s a controversial figure and has a very messy public narrative, with her comments on religion and sexuality and her open struggles with mental health issues. It’s interesting that she’s often judged so harshly for her imperfections. What, I wonder, would Jesus say?