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.

Led Zeppelin “Celebration Day” (2012)

     Since they disbanded in 1980, fans like me have always held a glimmer of hope that Led Zeppelin would reunite at some point with their remaining members so that we could experience their collective greatness live one more time.  Unlike most of the titanic acts of their time, this has occurred on a very rare basis.  The first time was at Live Aid, which was exciting and disastrous at the same time, and then after that, a short reunion appearance in 1988 at Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary Concert.  In both cases, Robert Plant’s voice was plagued by fatigue and cracking like many of their shows in the late 1970s, and Jimmy Page was not at the top of his game either.  Of course, Page & Plant had their run of tours and recording in the 1990s, but even that was impacted by the notable absence of bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones.  In 2007, the stars finally aligned one more time, and for several months Page, Plant, and Jones rejoined forces with Jason Bonham, son of their late drummer John Bonham, for an extended rehearsal session that led up to a single concert on December 12, 2007.  For all of that work, they only performed once, but it was a full set and truly was the most amazing way to say hello and goodbye to all of their fans, young and old.  That performance was captured on film and record for the 2012 release “Celebration Day”, and remains a lifetime musical highlight for me.

     When the film was released to theaters, my son joined me on opening night, and I will always appreciate his willingness to keep me company during this unprecedented moment.  Unlike most older bands, it was just the four of them.  No “supporting musicians” added to the group to fill out the sand, it was just the four artists left alone to preserve and restore their legacy as the greatest rock band of the 1970s.  I dedicated a rainy afternoon and watched the entire film, which flows in exact sequence of the album and actual concert.  There has been no shortage of animosity between the original three, but their collective love for Jason Bonham and the experience of reuniting brought out their best performance and they clearly truly enjoyed the moment.  Over 18 million fans applied online to buy tickets for this one show, at London’s O2 Arena, and they all got their money’s worth and more.

     The show opened with their first song from their first album, “Good Times Bad Times”.  The opening chords shook the building, and completely set the stage for what would follow.  The second song was “Ramble On”, another song they almost never performed live, and near the end, Page, Jones and Bonham had the first of their notable moments where they gathered in a circle and displayed their collective brilliance, all these years later.

     The classic chorus sing along “Black Dog” followed, and as he does when he performs solo, Robert Plant stayed within his range, lowering the key from his untouchable years but still sang with power and pure clarity.  “In My Time of Dying” brought out the blues, and they then played another first-time song, “For Your Life” from Presence.  Even my favorite band has songs I don’t love, and for me that will always be “Trampled Underfoot”.  That said, this version was as spirited and likable as any I have ever heard.

     The setlist only gets stronger as the show goes on, and both “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “No Quarter” were truly stunning.  For this show, Plant insisted they eliminate the marathon solos and jams, and the result was concise and tight versions that were closer to their original versions.  This less self-indulgent performance was easily digested by all fans, and I think could have served them well in the past.  During one moment on “No Quarter”, you can see Page just looking over at his band, smiling wryly as he clearly realized how big and how special this night was.  Next followed a trio of songs that were the centerpiece of their live shows in the 1970s, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “Dazed and Confused” and “Stairway to Heaven”.  Plant acknowledged that they had to play those tracks, and although he is well known for his aversion to “Stairway”, he performed it with the honor and grace this classic deserved.

     The main set rolled along with a powerful performance of “The Song Remains The Same” (it truly does), and “Misty Mountain Hop”.  The first of those was one of the few moments during the show where I realized they would never quite be the same without John Bonham, but his son was absolutely amazing in this show, and by far their best and only choice to play drums.  He even sang harmony vocals on “Misty Mountain Hop”, and added a lot to the entire show.

     If you were only going to watch one song from this show, it would have to be the set closer “Kashmir”.  This song stands as their greatest overall song, and the delivery of this track was absolutely massive.  It always brings me to the brink emotionally, and you could see many fans moved to tears by this thunderous finale.

     The band came back with two more encore songs, starting with the greatest guitar riff of its day, “Whole Lotta Love”.  The show finally ended with a blistering burst on “Rock and Roll”, and it truly has been a long time, been a long time, been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.  As much as the world wanted more, Plant retreated to his tour with Allison Krauss, and even though the other three considered touring without him, common sense prevailed, and to this day, “Celebration Day” stands as the last performance we will ever see from Led Zeppelin.  Words can’t properly express how important this band has been in my life, and I remain forever grateful they gave us this one last performance, a show and event of a lifetime.  No extended money grabs and no questionable tours held up by supporting musicians, the glory of Led Zeppelin was fully restored forever with a single show.

Bruno Mars “Unorthodox Jukebox” (2012)

     Today brought a much-needed light and airy album, “Unorthodox Jukebox”, the second album from Bruno Mars.  I have said it many times before, but sometimes there is just no substitute for fun, catchy, pop songs with alluring hooks, and that is exactly what this album delivers.  I consider Bruno Mars to be one of the premier performers of the past ten years, and his run of success really accelerated with this album.

     In total, there were five singles released from this album.  Two of them were major hits that I instantly recognized, “Locked out of Heaven” and the lamenting love lost ballad, “When I Was Your Man”.  Those are great songs indeed, but as I always hope for, some of my favorites turned out to be songs I didn’t recognize, even if they may be familiar to the more in-tune Bruno Mars fanbase.

     My top pick is “Treasure”, which was released as a single to not quite the same degree of commercial success.  This is just a perfect summertime hit, no matter what time of year you hear it, and I don’t know how anyone couldn’t love this song.  My next favorite is the island-calypso-reggae feel of “Show Me”.  This song is also a perfect soundtrack for a steamy hot beach day, and an instant add to my “Island” playlist.

     “Young Girls” and “Gorilla” were also released singles, and equally easy on the ears.  This album in total is just an absolutely ideal dose of simple pop magic, and Bruno and his songwriting team demonstrate notable prowess in creating these infectious tracks.  In total, the album is only 35 minutes, but I highly recommend it as fantastic add to any gathering you are enjoying, even if it is a gathering of one.

Kendrick Lamar “good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012)

     I felt compelled to give extra consideration to today’s album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” by Kendrick Lamar.  Kendrick is either at, or very near, the top of my son’s all-time list of hip-hop performers, and even as my limited exposure and reaction to his music before this was mixed, I knew this experience mandated an extended contemplation.  I can report favorably as I found a lot to like in this album, more than I had expected, and I now have a much greater appreciation for the high degree of regard there is for his music to this day.  This release is the #115 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     There is a lot of low-fi mellowness to this record, particularly in the beginning, and the first two tracks, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, set an autobiographical and subdued tone as the album begins.  The second song was intended to be a collaboration with Lady Gaga, but that did not ultimately occur due to creative and business challenges.  There are demo versions online with Gaga, and it would have been great if this could have been realized, as they do sound great.

     For me, the album really elevates on the third song, “Backstreet Freestyle”.  The intensely deep bass beat hits like a hammer, and for the first time, I’m coming at Kendrick Lamar with a similar appreciation as his fanbase.  The greatness continues with “The Art of Peer Pressure” is a softer yet funkier groove.  Then comes the third awesome song in row, “Money Trees”, featuring Jay Rock.  I think this song in particular showcases the smooth and highly capable MC style of Kendrick. 

    “Poetic Justice” is interesting as it features a sample of Janet Jackson, and many of us will recall the film of the same name featuring Jackson and Tupac.  This song brings Drake on for a verse, and the two pair up well on this slow-jam groove. Another favorite from this album is “m.A.A.d city”, featuring MC Eiht, with its eerie and powerful main verse.  This song is a mandatory volume blast and addition to my hip-hop playlist.

     The Compton foundation is strong on this record.  Dr. Dre appears and is a key production force in “Compton” as well as “The Recipe”, which was the first single, even as it was only a bonus track on some versions of the record.  The despair and connectivity back to the world of Death Row is a presence, but it has a fresh and contemporary feel on both of these songs.  I love both of them, and they only add to what is already a great record.

     Overall, this album greatly exceeded my expectations, and given the magnitude of importance it holds in the world of hip-hop, I shouldn’t be that surprised.  I’m grateful for this much deeper dive into the music of Kendrick Lamar, and the many future listens I hope to share with my son.