Adele “25” (2015)

     The next round of chart domination comes next from Adele, as we have the #1 selling album for 2015 AND 2016, “25”.  Each of her albums are titled with the convention of her current age, so it is four years since her massive hit “21”.  Obviously, this was also a major hit, and of the three albums to be #1 for two years in a row, since 1970, two of them came from Adele.  I was a little surprised to not see this one in the Rolling Stone Top 500.  The only reason I can assume is that critics may have thought this was just more of the same, soulful adult contemporary that spans a wide array of audiences without breaking too much new ground.  That is certainly how I see this record.

     Many times, I say the first song really sets the tone for the album, and that is the case here to some degree, and I consider that a bit unfortunate.  “Hello” was the first single and a major hit, but it is just a little bleak and depressing for my tastes, even as her vocals on this song are remarkable.  It is somewhat representative of the entire Adele catalog, and I think that is why I can only listen to so much Adele.  There are times in life where sadness takes hold, we all know that, but how about a little sunshine now and then? 

     The same mindset applies to “When We Were Young”.  It just brings me down.  This song also has another lyrical misread on my part.  For a sometime, I thought the word movie, which is used a dozen times or more, was moonbeam.  I’m glad I cleared that one up.

     Her other biggest hit from this record is also a breakup song, but at least it has some life to it.  The first time I heard “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”,  I remember someone said to me, “Listen, an actual Adele song that isn’t miserable”, and that has always stuck with me.  It does have a very sassy chorus and the harmony vocals add a lot of energy to this track, one of my favorites on the record.

     There are a couple of other highlights I will call out.  “Water Under the Bridge” actually opens as a Kate Bush “Running Up that Hill” sound-alike and carries a strong melody and tempo throughout the entire song.  “All I Ask” is a pretty and simple song, but for some of my digs, I can’t deny the creative talent of Adele her, and I learned a bit more about both of these songs with a little more research.  One, they both stand out as singles 4 & 5 from the record, so that makes sense, even though I don’t recall them from that time period, and “All I Ask” was actually cowritten by Bruno Mars, which makes sense given its sound.  It reminds me a lot of “When I Was Your Man”

     Adele is an amazing singer and a gifted performer on every level.  I do like it when she switches up the pace a bit, but that observation aside, I can fully appreciate the massive commercial appeal of this record.

Tame Impala “Currents” (2015)

     Today brought a completely unexpected surprise with the Australian “band” Tame Impala, which is almost exclusively Kevin Parker, particularly on this record, “Currents”.  I’m still not exactly sure why I chose to add this one, even though it is rated #382 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but I sure am glad I did.  The sound takes me back to 1980s British synthesized new wave, but instead it is 2015 and the origin is Australia.  Even as a legacy guitarist, this album is heavily synth-based and Parker does a fantastic job creating a vibe and a mood that extends through the entire record.  If I had to compare them to some other artists, two that come to mind are New Order and Cocteau Twins.

     The album opens with “Let It Happen”, which was the 1st single and certainly defines the sound for the rest of the record.  Next comes the song “Nangs”, with some very hypnotic synthesizer, I really love the aura of this tune.    “The Moment” is a great pop song, very up-tempo, and I’m honestly surprised this wasn’t released as one of the four singles from the album.

     The next two songs are very similar in sound.  “Yes I’m Changing” and “Eventually”, which was the 3rd single released, have a similar feel and sound that is true to the larger album.  I particularly appreciate the slow beauty of “Yes I’m Changing”.

     As I tried to recall the music of this act, I looked at the highest streamed songs and saw “The Less I Know the Better”, with over 1 billion plays on my service alone.  The irony here is I think this song, which was the 4th and last single released, is somewhat of a mood-breaker, as it is more of a straight-forward rocker, and one of my least favorite songs on a really strong total release.

     “Past Life” is an odd, techno-based song, and on “Disciples”, you can really appreciate the prominent falsetto as the pace accelerates.  “Cause I’m a Man” slows it back down, and it is just very impressive how lush and full in sound all of these melodies evolve into.

     As much as I enjoyed all of these songs, Parker saved the best for last on “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”.  This one hits heavier, with an almost-funky keyboard riff, and it bounces with a perfect thump.  In total, I can’t say that I was familiar with Tame Impala prior to this listen, but I can honestly see myself adding almost every song to my master playlist, and I will ultimately look back at this as one of my favorite discoveries of the entire experience.

Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp A Butterfly” (2015)

     Returning today to the world of hip-hop, we have the next release from Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”.  Lamar is probably the most highly regarded hip-hop artist of the last decade, with each release coming with great expectations and anticipation.  To his large core fanbase, this album was a major success, and it was also a critically acclaimed album, coming in at #19 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     As I listened to this record several times, I was challenged and confronted with a complicated reality.  There is only one song on this album that comes across with even a hint of pop sensibility or infectious hooks, and that is the first single, “i”.  Perfectly incorporating a sample from “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, I embraced this song several years ago as my favorite Kendrick Lamar song.  The MC work is stellar, and this song runs at a pace that truly showcases his talent as a performer.

     While there were other highlights along the way, I find myself looking at this record the same way as I do with a Miles Davis jazz album, and that isn’t just because there is a lot of jazz feel to this record.  What I believe it reflects is that I can tell this intellectual and spiritual delivery is somehow more than I can fully process, as if I’m not smart enough, sophisticated enough, or capable enough of connecting on this higher plane with Lamar.  I mean that with 100% sincerity and authenticity.  The incorporation of the recurring and building spoken word (“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same…”) helps amplify Lamar’s struggles with temptation, and the overall theme of this record moves at a dizzying pace as Lamar drops intense story after intense story.

     Among the most impactful tracks were me included the opener “Wesley’s Theory”, which kicks off with some George Clinton woven in.  “King Kunta” is another powerful song, embedding both Michael Jackson and James Brown in his own inimitable style.  I loved Snoop Dogg’s low-key delivery on “Institutionalized”, and “Alright”, with help from Pharell Williams, is another of the high points on this record.  “Hood Politics” opens with a Steely Dan-esque vibe that I would have loved to see extend through the song, but unfortunately it went in a more abrasive direction, which probably makes sense given the title and theme of the song.

     “The Blacker the Berry” shares a title with a Harlem renaissance novel, and I will confess it also had me fondly recalling a similar line from the song “Run and Tell That”, one of the very best musical theater songs I have ever seen, as presented in Hairspray.    The message and meaning of this song were even more direct and timely.  Lamar’s delivery is thunderous on this track, as he is joined by Assassin and Lalah Hathaway, and it references the murder of Trayvon Martin, a racially motivated killing that happened just miles away from where my own son went to high school. It isn’t lost on me, ten years after that murder, that he and Martin were essentially the same age.

     For all these moments of greatness, there are other tracks I just can’t quite latch on to, and there is nothing wrong with that.  I can’t even begin to comprehend the world Lamar grew up in coming from Compton, so I’m not shocked that songs like “For Free? Interlude” and “u” leave me a bit bewildered.  They are not easy listens, and frankly just above my ability to comprehend, not unlike a Miles Davis masterpiece.

     I had to make sure I invested the time and effort to go as far as I could with this one.  Not only is it one of the most influential and highly regarded albums of the last ten years, but it is also an all-time favorite of my son, and I owed it to him (and myself) to do my very best on this record.  I’m glad I was able to build on my enthusiasm for “i” with several other impressive songs and gain a much greater understanding of Kendrick Lamar along the way.

Taylor Swift “1989” (2014)

     Shattering any remaining perception that she was anything other than a pop music superstar, Taylor Swift released her next album of mega-hits, “1989”.  Named for the year she was born, which was also the year I graduated from college, there is some irony this came out in 2014 as I was preparing to emerge from the 25-year cocoon I had been living in myself.  This album was the #1 selling album of 2014 and is also rated as album #393 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Like her other albums, there are several major hit singles, but I did notice this was the first album of hers that I fondly recall some of these songs and liking them a lot as they were released.  In particular, I will always associate this record with “Blank Space”, “Shake It Off”, and my favorite song from the album. 

     Have you ever mis-heard a lyric and just assumed that’s what the artist really meant, no matter how wrong it was?  For me, one of my favorite examples comes from “Blank Space”, which I think is an outstanding pop song.  I knew that she probably didn’t sing “I’ve got a lot of Starbucks lovers”, and finally after months or years of this puzzlement, I finally looked it up and realized the correct lyric is “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers”, which of course makes a lot more sense.

     “Shake It Off” is a song that I THINK annoys my son, even as he also enjoys plenty of her music, but I’m not afraid to admit I love that song as well.  Even with those two classics, my favorite on this record by far is “Style”.  More subdued and intently focused, there is something remarkably passionate and innocent all at the same time.  It surprises me how much depth I find in this song, and I think it is one of the best songs she has ever written, with an assist from Martin Shellback and Ali Payami.  I think it is also a great driving song, which suits me fine as I prepare to get on the road to get back to the one I love.

     The rest of the album is completely full of two songs, hit singles and songs that probably could have been hit singles if so chosen by her and her record label.  “Bad Blood” was a big hit, and it has never been a favorite of mine.  I’m much more to partial to “Wildest Dreams”, which is another pretty song and one of her best vocal performances.  Of the “non-singles”, I like “Welcome to New York”, “All You Had to Do Was Stay”, “I Know Places” and the subtle album closer, “Clean”.

     As I said, “1989” was a big step forward in my admiration and appreciation for Taylor Swift, and I’m happy to state that support without any hint of hidden guilt.  Her and her team continued to pump out phenomenally popular and appealing songs, and even if they are somewhat simple in their meaning and presentation, that works just fine in the world of popular music.

Beyonce “Beyonce” (2013)

     The pendulum swings back into the world of massive pop stars, with today’s album coming from the legendary Beyonce Knowles, known primarily by her first name.  I was a bit reticent coming into this one, as I know Beyonce can go into that zone of overwrought R&B singing that just doesn’t appeal to me at all.  Thankfully, and as I should have expected, there is a lot of diversity to this record.  There are moments of painful over-singing, and none more egregious than her track “Drunk In Love” featuring her husband, Jay-Z, but in total, the album is a strong collection of material and has some songs I really liked.  This album, self-titled as “Beyonce”, is considered to be an experimental record for her, and features a massive team of producers and contributors.  I tend to get a little suspicious when I see that much “A-List” production talent, as it makes me wonder who really wrote and produce these songs, but the result was another big hit for Beyonce, and the record is rated #81 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     There are four singles from the record, and other than the brutal wailing of “Drunk in Love” with another annoying Jay-Z appearance, I really liked the other three and I picked them out as three of my favorites, with zero history or recognition as to the popularity of these songs.  “Pretty Hurts” is likely my favorite song on the record, and it as the album opener, it immediately raised the bar for my expectations for the rest of the record.  “XO” has an extremely infectious hook in the chorus, and it even has a bit of anthemic feel to it, which sizes up well with Beyonce’s titanic place in the musical industry.  It doesn’t surprise me this was the first single released on this big hit.  “Partition”, a spicy track about a backseat ride in a limo, reminds me more of a Rihanna song, which just further fuels the many rumors of competition between the two, both romantically and artistically, even as many of them have been disputed with time.

      My favorite non-single is the second song on the album, “Haunted”, a darker and more subdued track that really showcases her amazing voice as a singer.  I also like that the album splices in many clips from her highly visible history as a child superstar, even before her days in Destiny’s Child.  My favorite is her famous appearance on Ed McMahon’s Star Search as a 9-year-old girl, with Ed’s intro on front of the song “Flawless”.  There is more to come from Beyonce on this journey, and I’m more enthusiastic than I expected, even knowing the magnitude of her talent and stature in the industry.

Laura Marling “Once I Was an Eagle” (2013)

     Today I welcomed a change of pace from the barrage of headline pop acts in the 2010s, as I listened to the #5 folk album of all time, as rated by nme.com, “Once I Was an Eagle” by British folk singer Laura Marling.  I can’t say I was fully captivated by the album, and at times it even felt a bit like a chore, but like most albums along the way, I did find some memorable highlights.

     In simple terms, the more energetic and up-tempo the song, the more likely I was to enjoy it.  And on top of it all, I must give her tremendous credit for not only her songwriting, but her guitar playing is top notch.  The one single from the album is “Master Hunter”, and it is one of the bolder songs on a mostly subdued record.

     “Undine” is a pretty melody that oddly has some very similar note sequences to “Stairway to Heaven”.  Even with that observation, I no more think she borrowed or stole from that song anymore than Led Zeppelin “stole” the song from Spirit, in their much-renowned legal case in recent years.  Some notes just work together, and on its own, “Undine” is very much its own tune, with nice bluesy touch to the guitar.

     My favorite track over all is “Where Can I Go”, another of the more energetic songs on the record, and this is the one time I caught myself reaching to turn up the volume as the song builds in the second half.  It really is the best song on this record if I am voting.  The last song I will single out is “Pray for Me”.  The chord sequence and musical structure of this song is really inviting, and in general, there is a stark contrast between the songs I singled out and the rest of the album, which did not really inspire either me or my son, who was along for the ride.  Like many of these artists, I will hang onto my discoveries and press on.

Daft Punk “Random Access Memories” (2013)

     I was hoping I would enjoy today’s album, but I underestimated how much I loved “Random Access Memories” by the renowned techno-duo, Daft Punk.  Back in my less enlightened days, I used to needle my son for music like this, saying “Sounds amazing, let’s watch two guys on stage push buttons on their computer.”  Obviously, that was a pretty ignorant take, and even I came around to the biggest hit on this record, “Get Lucky”, featuring Pharell Williams on vocals.  All of that said, I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy this entire album, which is rated #295 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     There isn’t a single song on the album I didn’t really like, and “…Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love” are great openers that blend surprisingly funky guitar, omnipresent synthesizers and their modulated electronic voices.  For me, the album really takes off on “Giorgio by Moroder”, a tribute to Italian electronic and disco music pioneer Giovanni Giorgio Moroder.  The song starts off with Giorgio giving an autobiographical spoken overview of his life and career, and the main melody runs from there.  It really got my attention with about 3 minutes remaining, when the primary melody is overtaken by guitar, bass, and live drums, bursting the song into the next dimension of music.

     Other highlights include “Instant Crush”, featuring Julian Casablancas from the Strokes on vocals, “Lose Yourself to Dance”, the other track featuring Pharell, “Beyond”, “Motherboard”, “Doin’ It Right” featuring Panda Bear, and “Fragments of Time” featuring Todd Edwards, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a Steely Dan song.

      Of course, “Get Lucky” still remains the centerpiece and the phenomenal mega-hit of this album.  Rarely does a disco-dance track branch out with such broad appeal, and I can’t imagine many who listen to this song who aren’t captivated by its energy and allure.  Sometimes new listeners need a gateway track like “Get Lucky” to pique our curiosity for more, and even it was almost a decade later, I’m grateful I jumped wholeheartedly into Daft Punk.  Most, if not all of this album will be added to my master playlist, and I don’t make such statements lightly.

Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013)

    Up until today, my exposure to “Vampire Weekend” was limited for the most part to their 2019 hit, “Harmony Hall”.  My son always told me he really liked their older music, even as it ran somewhat contra to his normal tastes, and I have to concur.  I think the 2013 album “Modern Vampires of the City” is a fantastic album, and others appear to feel similarly, as it is album # 328 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     I have seen several references to their genre as “indie rock”, but I find their sound to me much bigger, deeper and more well-rounded than music I typically associate with this genre, and very importantly with this album, it all starts with excellent songwriting.  One of my very favorite songs is the album opener, “Obvious Bicycle”.  I warmed up to it immediately, just as I think any artist aspires to occur with the first track on a record.

     The next song, “Unbelievers”, which was one of the singles released, is a lovely up-tempo happy song, and it reinforces the good ambiance of this album.  Things slow down a bit with “Step”, but the gorgeous descending melody that opens the track is remarkably appealing.  Another single, “Diane Young” comes next, and it is a driving high-tempo rocker that incorporates a dance vibe along the way.

     “Hannah Hunt” is an slightly unusual song that starts of with this unique repeating riff that blends the bass line from “One of These Nights” by the Eagles with the ocean feel of “Under the Boardwalk”.  My listening was further brought to attention near the end of “Finger Back”, when I heard the first usage of the primary lyric for “Harmony Hall”.  I don’t want to live like this… but I don’t want to die.  I love hearing acts connect their work like this, and it helps me appreciate their larger catalogue.

     “Ya Hey”, the other single from the album, is a quirky track that ultimately builds to a fairly dramatic conclusion in the end, and the album concludes with a short but sweet track, “Young Lion”, that transitions from piano to an apparent harpsichord, somewhat reminiscent of “In My Life” by the Beatles, but with Vampire Weekend’s own signature harmony vocals perfectly concluding the album.

     As you can see, this record hit me cold and made me feel warm, and that sensation never gets old.  One can never hear too much new music, even if it isn’t exactly new, and I’m grateful to add this album to my collection of favorites.

Justin Timberlake “The 20/20 Experience” (2013)

     Briefly breaking the run of Adele domination, Justin Timberlake claimed the #1 selling album in 2013 with “The 20/20 Experience”.  Not surprisingly, there are some catchy hooks, although not as many as I hoped, and his collaboration with Timbaland keeps the production quality on the top shelf.  With all of that said, my one overwhelming and consistent reaction, particularly for a pop record, is “WHY IS EVERY SONG SO DAMN LONG?!?!”  This is Justin Timberlake, not Pink Floyd, so as much as there were some bright spots, this record was a bit of a grind.

     There were three singles released from this album, and I as I suspected, there are radio edits for these tracks.  If I could find the “radio edit” version of this entire album, then we might have something more to celebrate.  The one song I clearly recognized from this collection is “Mirrors”.  It is a great pop song that sounds like it could have just as easily been a big hit for Timberlake’s original act, NSYNC.  As a 4:37 radio hit, this is a great song, and one I will gladly add to my playlist.  In its original form where it is longer than Stairway to Heaven… not so much.

     The first three songs on this record are probably the others I enjoyed most.  “Pusher Love Girl” has a great vibe once it kicks in and is a good starter for the record.  I also liked “Suit & Tie”, another of the singles, but like most Jay-Z collaborations, I was pretty neutral on his contributions to the song.  “Don’t Hold the Wall” has a darker feel, but also held my attention for most of the song.

      If there is one song I didn’t quite connect with, it is “Blue Ocean Floor”, which sounds like his contribution to an undersea documentary for the Nature Channel.  I appreciate the exploratory tone of the song, but like most of this record, it is just too much of an initial good idea.  Maybe my attention span is waning with age, but I’ll keep my pop songs in bite-sized portions for now.

Taylor Swift “Red” (2012)

     Today we have the next release from Taylor Swift, with her album “Red”.  Apparently, some people referred to this record as her crossover album from country to pop music, but I certainly don’t hear anything that sounds much like country music on this record, even by today’s watered-down country-pop standards.  That being said, as she made the move to pop music, she certainly did it extremely well.  This record has 16 songs in total, so there is no shortage in content, and while 7 of the tracks were released as singles, by my count, any one of these 16 songs probably could have been pushed by the label as a releasable single.  Taylor won’t go down as the most vocally amazing performer of her generation, but she and her team around her were remarkably capable of writing and performing infectious pop tunes. Critically, I believe respect has grown with time for Taylor and her music, and this album is rated #99 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Most of these songs centered around the challenges of ending relationships, which fair or not, was associated with Swift for several of her younger years in the business.  Even at this time, I was still only distantly connected to the world of pop music, and I only recognized the two biggest hits from this album, “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”.

     Like I said, all of these songs are quite easy to digest, and if I had to pick two other songs I liked best, I would go with the album opener “State of Grace”, which was not released as a single, and “22”, which was released as the 4th single from the record.

     Not surprising, there are two collaborations on this record.  One of the pairings was inevitable as Ed Sheeran joined her on “Everything Has Changed”, while the other featured Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol.  I love how they actually referred to him on the album as “Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol”, which is probably helpful.  Did you know the name of the singer for Snow Patrol?  Yeah… me neither.  Both of these duets are on the slow and melancholy side, but they do provide nice contrast to the consistent energy and presence of Swift.

      Like the last Swift album we discussed, Taylor has recently recorded a new version of the entire album (subtitled “Taylor’s Version”), and I have to give her credit again, she and her production team did a great job of reproducing these songs ten years after the fact.  For the future, I will respect her wishes and listen to that version if/when I add a song or two from this record to my playlist.  Maybe it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I’m enjoying the expanded view of her catalog during this journey and I know there is plenty more to come.