Front Row Seat: Music at the 2015 Oscars

Once upon a time, many moons ago, I debuted a feature called Front Row Seat, meant to highlight live performances. (Its inaugural post talked about some outstanding stuff from the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Concert by Janelle Monae and a then fairly unknown Ellie Goulding.) I’ve seen a host of terrific live songs all over the Internet in the years since that post, but for some reason, this particular blog feature fell off the radar. Hopefully I can bring it back more often, but the occasion causing its return this time around? That would be the 2015 Academy Awards, which aired this past Sunday. I actually didn’t end up watching them, but I caught up on the musical performances afterwards, and there were some very, very good things happening. You may have seen these performances already, but if you haven’t, even if you’re not a film buff, here’s your chance.

Let’s get the biggest musical surprise of the evening out of the way first, since it’s likely the one you’ve already heard of. Lady Gaga did a tribute to “The Sound of Music” for its 50th anniversary. Now, I was previously well-aware that Lady Gaga, despite the absolutely bonkers things she has done in the past (musically and otherwise), has a very high level of talent and a powerful voice. Her recent jazz album with Tony Bennett is a terrific showcase for that, and very different from what she usually does, for sure. So when I heard she brought down the house with her tribute at the Oscars, I expected to hear that same brassy jazz-pop voice…but no, she surprised even me when she pulled out a top-notch musical theater-style tone, clear and note-perfect, that rivals Julie Andrews in her heyday. (Notice that I say rivals, not surpasses. I mean, Julie Andrews in her heyday, even Gaga can’t beat that.) Yes, this lives up to the hype, and then some. I’ve never considered myself a huge Lady Gaga fan, yet after watching this, I’d cast her as the lead in a “Sound of Music” remake in a heartbeat. Just how many sides does this woman have?

Earlier on in the broadcast came most of the nominated songs. Country star Tim McGraw, whose music I grew up with, paid tribute to an even greater country legend, Glen Campbell, whose final song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” was up for Best Original Song. It’s a deep, emotional tune, and although Glen’s original is beyond compare, Tim does the song justice with a simple, stripped-down performance.

Another standout performance by a Best Original Song nominee? “Everything Is Awesome” (from “The Lego Movie,” whose unfortunate snub in the Best Animated Feature category was well-documented) would be one of those. The song’s fantastic original artists, Canadian duo, Tegan and Sara at the Oscars (!!!)? Check. Lego Oscars for the celebs in the audience? Affirmative. Batman (played by Will Arnett)? Yep. Pretty much anything and everything they could throw at us? That too. It’s crazy, it’s all over the place, but it’s fun, packed with energy, and quite a different Oscars performance than we’ve seen the likes of in quite some time. So wacky, it just works.

Last, but certainly not least, the now Academy Award-winning song “Glory” (from “Selma”), performed by John Legend & Common (I highlighted one of their past collaborations right here on this blog), closed the show, and what a way to close. Stirring, gripping, meaningful, riveting and important…everyone involved proved exactly why in a year of fairly strong music in film, this song rose above the rest to take the prize.

Thanks for reading and listening (and watching…sorry for the random sources for the videos, by the way…I tried to find relatively high-quality ones that were embeddable, which was surprisingly difficult this time around). I’ll be back quite soon with more great music. (And hopefully before too long, another appearance of this feature. I rather like the concept.)

La canción del día: “Hasta la raíz”

Es hora de compartir más música en español, algo que yo descubrí hoy día, de hecho. Comparto con todos Uds. la canción…

“Hasta la raíz” por Natalia Lafourcade!

Natalia Lafourcade, una cantautora mexicana, es una de mis artistas preferidas. (Ella ha trabajado mucho con Ximena Sarinaña, una cantante de que he hablado en este blog, y que también es muy buena.) De vez en cuando, cuando tengo un poco de tiempo libre, busco en el Internet para ver si alguno de mis artistas favoritos haya sacado algo nuevo…una canción, un disco, algo así. Hoy, este fue el caso con Natalia Lafourcade, y vi que había salido dos nuevos sencillos de ella en preparación para su nuevo disco que saldrá este año. Esta canción, “Hasta la raíz,” tiene el mismo título que el disco tiene, y es el primero sencillo promocional que ha salido. Esta canción es maravillosa, llena de emoción y muy poderosa a la vez. La letra claramente viene del corazón, y la música complementa dicha letra excelentemente. La instrumentación también es buenísima. Los instrumentos de cuerda, particularmente, que están al fondo, son perfectos. Casi al final, cuando Natalia está vocalizando en el puente de la canción, simplemente no hay palabras para describir cuán bonita está todo. Espero ansiosamente el nuevo disco de ella. Recomiendo que escuchen sus canciones, y seguro que estarán esperando ansiosamente también.

Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican singer-songwriter, is one of my favorite Spanish-language artists. (She’s worked a lot with Ximena Sarinaña, a singer who I’ve talked about before on this blog, and who also hails from Mexico and is also terrific.) Once in a while, when I have a bit of free time (or I’m distracted, let’s be real here), I search the Internet to see if certain of my favorite artists have come out with anything new…a new single, a new album, something like that. Today, this was the case with Natalia Lafourcade, and I saw that she recently released 2 new singles in preparation for her upcoming album that will come out this year. This song, “Hasta la raíz” (Up to the root), is the album’s title track, and the lead single for the disc. It’s a gorgeous tune, full of emotion and powerful at the same time. The lyrics clearly come from the heart, and the music complements those lyrics wonderfully. The strings, in particular, in the background are perfect. Towards the latter part of the song, when Natalia is vocalizing in the bridge, there are simply not words for how beautiful everything is. I anxiously await her new album. I highly recommend you check out her music (especially the new songs coming out), and you’ll likely be waiting anxiously before long, as well.

Song of the Day: “Say You Love Me”

I’ve been meaning to make this little post for a while now. Why exactly it took so long when it’s a Song of the Day, and thus very quick and easy to put together, I don’t know…but never mind that. Today’s song to be spotlighted?

“Say You Love Me” by Jessie Ware!

Before I start talking about the song, remember how a few weeks ago, I gave a few honorable mentions for my Best Albums of 2014 list? I have at least one album to add to the fray, one that had I not been a dummy and had actually listened to it last year, it would have easily made the list (I have no idea what album it would have replaced, but that’s kind of a moot point now anyhow), the album this very song comes from, “Tough Love,” by British rising star Jessie Ware. (Consider it an honorary 41st entry or something. There is one other album I overlooked, I believe, but I’ll hopefully get to that in another post.) Early this year, I realized I’d been seeing Jessie’s name and that album floated around quite a lot, and decided to check her out once and for all. I did, and I was drawn in almost instantly. She has a gorgeous voice, powerful yet delicate and expressive, and her songwriting is top-notch. This particular song, the second single off her album, is absolutely stunning. Co-written with a rather famous fellow British musician, Ed Sheeran, it’s a heartbreakingly lovely acoustically-based ballad (think pop with a hint of R&B and soul) that has Jessie pleading for her lover to just say those words…to just say that they love her. The way both her and Ed Sheeran voice that plea in their writing is extremely well-done, she gives an impeccable, impassioned vocal, and the instrumentation surrounding her is both bracingly accessible and sonically experimental all at once. If this is your first time listening to Jessie Ware (this is quite possible), do yourself a favor and take a dive into her other songs. If you’re already a fan, go ahead and slap me for taking so long to realize how great she is.

Song Sampler of the Day: “What Is Love,” “There Is No Arizona,” and “My Valentine”

So it’s Valentines’ Day today, of course. And Arizona’s 103rd birthday. Being proud of Arizona, and admittedly quite single, I often enjoy celebrating the latter rather than the former each February 14th, but I have to admit Valentines’ Day is a nice opportunity to put a spotlight on our most romantic, love-themed tunes. I’ll do that today with not just one Song of the Day, but a special Song Sampler of the Day, highlighting a bit of Valentines’ Day, and a bit of Arizona as well. First up?

“What Is Love” by Janelle Monae!

Nope, it’s not the “What Is Love” you’re probably thinking of. (Like that one would need any introduction.) This sprightly samba-style song of the same name, from “Rio 2″ (which is still on my list of films to see in the near future), performed by the always-fantastic Janelle Monae, is really, just tons of fun. “What good is love, if it’s not your love?” Janelle asks in the chorus, surrounded by rousing Brazilian drums and a chorus. You may not be banging your head to the beat, but everything else will definitely be moving. Next, turning to the birthday state Arizona for a moment, here’s…

“There Is No Arizona” by Jamie O’Neal!

OK, so granted, this isn’t the most ideal tune to represent Arizona on its birthday, since country singer Jamie O’Neal spends each chorus talking about how the state doesn’t exist. (This is, of course, a metaphor for the lies that the song’s protagonist has been told…her lover promised her a new life in Arizona, but really used it as an excuse to leave her.) That said, while Arizona is no stranger to music (“Take It Easy” and “Route 66,” among others, name-check AZ locales), there aren’t many tunes with choruses that mention places like the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, and Sedona. Perhaps my argument is pretty thin, but well, I grew up with this song, and to me it’s a nice way to celebrate my beloved home state, as weird as it may sound. (Plus, I guess it somewhat fits the Valentines’ theme as well…albeit in a kind of depressing way, as it talks of love gone wrong, rather than love gone right.) Moving on…

“My Valentine” by Paul McCartney!

One of the few songs I know of with “Valentine” specifically in the title (another that comes to mind is Martina McBride’s “Valentine,” which may be 100 different kinds of cheesy, but I like it), this was one of the 2 original tunes Paul McCartney featured on his recent “Kisses On the Bottom” album, which was otherwise dedicated to jazz standards. It’s a lovely, understated song, and Paul sounds terrific, as usual. It may not be a Beatles classic or off one of his more modern albums (he’s doing great work there, as well), but it’s a great song that celebrates love and affection, done by one of the best in the business.

As an added bonus, here’s a playlist I’ve kind of thrown together, filled with an absolutely random, but outstanding, bunch of love-themed songs I came up with off the top of my head. I may keep adding to it as time goes on. There’s a few songs about unrequited love, a lot of happy songs, some in between, etc. It covers quite a lot of genres…I highly recommend you give it a try.

Enjoy your Valentines’ Day/Arizona birthday celebrations, and thanks as always for reading. Once again, I have lots of music I’m eager to share, so stay tuned and I’ll be back as soon as I can with more great posts.

Song of the Day: “FourFiveSeconds”

Long time, no post. It happens from time to time, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s kind of late posting, but it’s a Friday (well, now technically Saturday), so why not? Without much more delay, a terrific Song of the Day from a very, very unexpected source. This one definitely took me quite by surprise…

“FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West, & Paul McCartney!

Yes, you read that right. By now, you’ve probably heard at least a bit of this song on the radio (it’s apparently climbing up the charts)…I wouldn’t know because I’ve been pretty radio-less for a while…or heard about it, at the very least. It’s the lead single for Rihanna’s upcoming album, and it’s Kanye’s second collaboration in recent months with the legendary Paul McCartney. (They previously teamed up for the introspective ballad “Only One.”) I’ll tell you what else it is…it’s arguably the best work that both Rihanna and Kanye have ever done. (McCartney, of course, is McCartney.) I’ve enjoyed Rihanna’s music from time to time. As I highlighted in a recent post, her recent song “Stay,” a spare and acoustic number, was a major departure from her usual stuff, and it worked really well. I’m also rather partial to a few of her other past hits, like “Diamonds” and “Don’t Stop The Music.” That said, there’s quite a lot that she’s done that I haven’t been a fan of, and I’ve never quite thought of her as being much of a vocalist, if we’re being honest. As for Kanye…I’m not a big rap person, and Kanye’s personality…well, let’s not go into that. So perhaps that’s why this song floored me so much. Rihanna gives her best, most honest vocal in years. Kanye sings in general (no rapping here), and while he’s no Sam Smith or John Legend or anything, he definitely doesn’t get in the way of the song. And Paul McCartney seems to bring out the best in both of them, playing some fine guitar and (presumably) adding some nice instrumental flourishes. (I don’t know if he’s the one playing the organ in the bridge, but at any rate, it seems like something he probably influenced a great deal.) It’s a devilishly catchy tune, but at the same time, so raw and organic and unlike pretty much anything that everyone involved has ever done, that it just grabs you. Take the following tweet as anecdotal evidence of its impact, at least in my book:

I’m really happy that an artist like Rihanna branching out and trying something quite different than what she usually does, something more authentic and real, something that really shows the talent she has. I’m also happy to see Kanye West, an artist whose usual fare isn’t quite my cup of tea, show another side of his artistry and throw non-rap fans like me a bone. I’m happy to see that Paul McCartney, more than 40 years removed from his time with the Beatles, is still part of some great music, and not afraid to rub shoulders with Top 40 artists from completely different genres (while keeping his own artistic integrity and vision in the process). Basically, I’m happy with this whole thing. Never mind who it comes from. It may be weird for you at first to be enjoying a song by artists you possibly do not typically care for. But trust me when I say, this is definitely the most pleasant musical surprise that we’ve had so far this year. Do yourself a favor and listen for yourself.

Play List: 4 Great EPs From 2014 (and Best Album Honorable Mentions)

Honorable Mentions and EPs

On Twitter yesterday, I excitedly noted that my best albums of 2014 project was finally complete. Well, it is. But I wanted to get out a few more odds/ends/recommendations/whatever you’ll call them. The last time I did a “best of” list in 2011, I included a few honorable mentions that I wasn’t able to include for some reason. This time around, I’ll do the same, but before that, a little background on how I put it all together. Like I mentioned in my previous posts, my list expanded greatly this time around because thanks to Spotify and everything, I was able to check out virtually any album I was considering for my list, and listen to it more than once as needed. I ended up seeking out a lot of music (“I wonder if so-and-so’s released something lately?”), finding out about it as I went (“Vince Mendoza got nominated for another Grammy? For Mary Chapin Carpenter? Gotta check that out…”), etc., and even though I initially planned for a list of about 20 or so, much like my 2011 one, the number ended up skyrocketing to 40. Even with so many more albums I highlighted this year than before, a few got left out of the list. I considered making it some weird number again (my 2011 list ended up being 21 albums due to a late-breaking addition), but decided to cap it at 40 no matter what, and shuffle albums in and out if I needed to.

One album that got knocked out of the list at the last minute (I mentioned this in my post yesterday) was “No One Is Lost” by Stars. My roommate last semester had recommended to them to me (they’re a Canadian group, and he’s from Canada), and I took a good listen in particular to “No One Is Lost,” since it had been released in 2014. I really liked it, but I hadn’t listened to it too much, and when “Round Nina” came along, it took the place of “No One Is Lost.” Another honorable mention that was originally in the list is “Lost In The Dream” by the War on Drugs. It was kind of borderline throughout the whole process…I’ve realized it’s more an album I appreciate than I enjoy. Some of the songs just seem to overstay their welcome…I don’t know. But it’s definitely a quality piece of work, and I would have liked to highlight it on my list. The last honorable mention I’d like to make is one I’m sure you’re very familiar with…“1989” by Taylor Swift. This one was partly because I didn’t get to sit down and listen to the album in full, with headphones and all (this was my general rule for picking an album for the list) until after the list was finalized (this year, in fact). Another reason I decided not to include it was because of its unavailability on streaming services, a decision I don’t quite agree with (and may still write about on this blog in the near-future, if I can gather my thoughts well enough). Now that I have been able to listen to it, I do really like the album, but I’m fine that it wasn’t included with the 40 that I posted.

Now, onto the main reason I made this here little post. In addition to the 40 albums I selected, here are four extended-plays released in 2014 that I thought were some of the best of the year.

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Flannel Graph — Ribs of Adam

An admission…I had this on my albums list for the longest time, until I realized it only had 7 songs and thus should be classified as an EP, not a full album. I hadn’t heard of Flannel Graph, a Montana-based indie-folk duo, until last semester of school, when one or two of my roommates (this is a theme that keeps popping up…they can be very helpful with music recommendations) started listening to them, then I started listening to them, and fell in (musical) love. Funded by an ultimately successful Kickstarter campaign, this 7-song set is full of absolutely gorgeous vocals and songcraft. Taking on themes of heartbreak and longing, but also the joy and beauty of being in love, this EP simpy begs for repeat listening. (My roommates certainly had it on repeat throughout the semester…) I can’t wait for what Flannel Graph has in store next. (And if it takes another Kickstarter campaign to get there, chances are I’ll be happily on board.)

Charlotte Church — Four

The last time you probably heard of Charlotte Church, she was the Welsh preteen with the otherworldly voice that liked to sing classical crossover. In the years since that time (we’re talking late 90s/early 2000s), she’s done quite a bit of growing up, especially musically. First she tried out a pop-influenced album, “Tissues and Issues.” She stripped things down a bit for her long-delayed follow-up, “Back To Scratch,” but label troubles meant that album never made it out of her native UK (she’s from Wales). Now she’s recently started an EP series and gone decidedly indie, carving out her own musical landscape, and the results are riveting. This is the fourth entry in the series (out of a planned five), and I’d argue it’s the best of the bunch so far. You can’t quite put your finger on what kind of music she’s making, but you don’t really need to. Her voice is as strong as ever, yet she uses it in very different ways than she has before (including an intriguing jaunt into vocoders for the daring, infectious single “Little Movements”). This is most certainly not the Charlotte Church of before…she’s experimenting, exploring, and making truly different, but nonetheless outstanding, music. If it’s been a while since you’ve had your Church fix, now’s the time to become reacquainted with her again.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir — He Is Risen

This year, the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, instead of releasing a full album, opted for an Easter-themed EP as their non-Christmas release (they always release a recording on CD and DVD of their previous year’s holiday concert), and while there may be less songs on this EP than there are on an LP, there’s certainly not any less quality. Featuring 5 selections ranging from beloved hymns such as “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today” and “In The Garden” to classical selections like an excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah,” this is a beautiful way to celebrate the Savior’s life through music, not only around Easter time, but the whole year round. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (along with the accompanying Orchestra at Temple Square) is quite simply as good as it gets when it comes to music, especially choral music, and this is yet another outstanding release from them.

Pentatonix — PTX Vol. III

I’ve certainly made no secret on this blog that I’m a huge fan of Pentatonix. I noted recently how they’ve exploded in popularity in the 2 years I was gone, and this, their latest EP, is a prime example of just why they’re now so universally beloved. This is the best a cappella music there is out there. I feel quite comfortable making that kind of a statement. Endlessly inventive in their arrangements and production, yet heart-stoppingly authentic and real in their execution, Pentatonix is in top form, featuring an irresistible mix of covers (including some lesser-known fare like “Papaoutai” by Stromae) and exceptionally strong original compositions. If you’ve avoided the Pentatonix juggernaut until now, or you’re already a huge fan like me, you’ve just got to listen to this. It really can’t get much better.

Enjoy this playlist based on these 4 EPs (“He Is Risen” sadly cannot be included because it is not available on Spotify):

I’ll close with another thank you, and also a fun (final) fact about my Best Albums of 2014 this year: 6 artists appeared both on this list and the one in 2011. (Coldplay, Foster the People, Ben Sollee, Elbow, Ximena Sariñana, and Sondre Lerche are the repeat offenders.) I’m weird and I notice things like that. Anyhow, thanks as always for reading, and I’ll be back soon with more, as always.

Best Albums of 2014 — Part II

Best Albums of 2014 Part II

Bet you didn’t think I’d be back with Part II this fast, did you? OK, maybe you did. Perhaps it was just me doubting. (I actually did them both in the same week! Hallelujah.) At any rate…let’s just carry on, why don’t we? Here are my other 20 picks for the best 40 albums of 2014. See if your favorite makes the list, below.

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The Family Crest — Beneath the Brine

There are some bands, and some albums, that just get it right on every level. The Family Crest and “Beneath The Brine” are a case of getting it absolutely right. An ambitious, sprawling concept (the Family Crest consists of a core group of touring members, but features hundreds contributing to their recordings)? Check. A lead vocalist with an astoundingly gorgeous instrument? Check. Soaring, uplifting, sweeping songs? Check. This is a singular album, filled with unique, stunning songcraft that just works. A bit of a cliche here, but I mean it when I say (as the highest of compliments) that this album needs to be heard to be believed.

Ricardo Arjona — Viaje

Guatemalan singer/songwriter Ricardo Arjona has had a long and fruitful career so far full of hits, but his last few years of music-making since his decision to go independent and form his own record label in 2011, he’s been particularly on point artistically. His latest album is a personal one, but full of fire as well. Featuring a collection of songs that go from emotional lows (devastating lead single “Apnea”) to highs (the beautifully lilting, irresistible opener “Lo poco que tengo”) and many places in between along the way. Aptly titled “Viaje” (meaning trip or journey in English), this album seems like a reflection of Arjona’s experiences in the best way, and makes for very compelling listening. Even after all this time, he’s still got it.

She & Him — Classics

After three “volume”-titled albums of high-quality original tunes, duo She & Him (consisting of singer/guitarist M. Ward and actress/singer Zooey Deschanel) decided to do an album paying tribute to their favorite vintage songs, and what an excellent choice that proves to be. The disc has much more of a jazz feel than their previous albums, and it fits Zooey and M. Ward like a glove. The song choices are top-notch, and the duo sounds as good as ever. Highlights include a glamorous yet intimate take on “Oh No, That’s My Baby,” and both Zooey and M. Ward contributing to vocals for a playful, gorgeous duet on “Time After Time.” You just can’t get much better than this, folks.

Foster the People — Supermodel

Deeper and darker than their debut album, yet still with energy and verve, “Supermodel” is further proof by Foster the People that pop music can be both thoughtful and effervescent. Mixing social commentary with pop can be a risky move, but the band pulls it off well here. Musically, the album is outstanding, and lyrically, while not every idea comes right through on every listen, enough of them do to enrich the listening experience even more. The album may take some time to grow on you, but it’s definitely worth the time to dive into it.

Elbow — The Take Off and Landing of Everything

A few years removed from the mammoth success of their 2008 album “The Seldom-Seen Kid,” and after a similarly well-received follow up, “Build A Rocket Boys!,” English rock group Elbow took a bit of a different approach on their most recent offering, but one that paid off very nicely all the same. Choosing to write songs separately instead of as a group as they usually do, things are a bit more subdued this time around, but the band is still full of fire, and lead vocalist Guy Garvey is at the top of his game. You really can’t go wrong with any Elbow album, and this one is no exception.

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga — Cheek To Cheek

Pairing an 88-year-old jazz legend with a pop star under 30 (and on top of that, a pop star known for things like an infamous meat dress) sounds completely crazy on paper. Completely, utterly insane, really. But when that jazz legend is the ever-versatile and classy Tony Bennett, who has sung with quite a few kinds of artists lately, one of them being the pop star in question herself, Lady Gaga…the idea starts to sound less and less crazy. And the result? Better than anyone could have expected. Lady Gaga is a natural in the jazz idiom (she oversings a tiny bit from time to time, but it’s not too distracting), and her and Tony have a quirky, engaging chemistry that shines through on each track. They each have a few songs to themselves, as well, and acquit themselves excellently on each occasion. All in all, a very, very pleasant surprise. If they ever find the time again, I can’t wait to hear the sequel.

BYU Vocal Point — Spectrum

A cappella group Vocal Point, from Brigham Young University (where this writer is currently attending) wowed TV audiences on “The Sing-Off” back in fall 2011. This new album, “Spectrum,” is the latest they’ve recorded since that run, and it continues to show just how darn fun Vocal Point is, even without the visual element. The production is high quality, the song choices are spot-on (for the most part), and seriously, the energy just leaps out of each track. It may start to veer towards male a cappella cliches at a few tiny moments, but by and large, this is a highly enjoyable, highly recommended a cappella treat, and a real winner in my book.

Sia — 1000 Forms of Fear

Sia’s first album truly in the spotlight, “1000 Forms of Fear” is an album that might have never been. Sia was reportedly considering quitting music after her last album (an unexpected success), but thankfully, she decided to focus on writing for other artists (such as Rihanna and Beyonce…you may have heard of them), and eventually return to creating her own material. The result is this album, which is an absolute triumph. More mainstream without selling out, emotional while staying accessible and enjoyable, and sung with incredible passion, Sia has made the transition to Top 40 artist rather seamlessly, while keeping each and every bit of her personality that made her special in the first place. Sia’s already amassed quite a catalog, but here’s hoping there are even more great things to come.

Minnie Driver — Ask Me To Dance

Actors and actresses who sing ‘on the side’ can be rather hit and miss. Minnie Driver has always seemed to stay decidedly on the hit side, though she’s as low-key as they come. Her music may not be flashy, but she’s an accomplished vocalist and performer, and as a result, her music is just…solid. Quality stuff, really. This album, a collection of covers of songs that have inspired and influenced her, is unassuming, but beautiful and exceptionally well-done. She somehow manages to make a dramatically slowed-down cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” sound very good, as well as throwing a surprisingly strong country-tinged cover of the Killers’ “Human” at us without a sweat. “Ask Me To Dance” makes a strong case for Driver as one of the foremost actors/actresses that also happens to make some great music.

Millennial Choirs & Orchestras — To Be American

As previously mentioned on this blog, Millennial Choirs & Orchestras (MCO), an organization involving various choral & orchestral ensembles across 4 states, has done some amazing work. This, their most recent recording, is just the latest pinnacle of that work. Featuring some absolutely stunning arrangements among choral and orchestral music of the highest quality, this collection of patriotic music isn’t just for Independence Day or Memorial Day–it’s for the whole year long. Arguably the album’s centerpiece, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is dazzlingly reinvented…you won’t be sure what you think of it at first, but by the end, your jaw will drop, and with each successive listen, you’ll be moved more and more. That’s just one example of the incredible music that awaits you…MCO just keeps getting better and better.

U2 — Songs of Innocence

“Songs of Innocence,” U2’s latest album, is probably best known as the album that Apple loaded onto everyone’s iTunes library without prior notice. However, I’m grateful for that gift from Bono, the Edge, and Co. to my music collection…I quite honestly wouldn’t have taken much of a listen to the album otherwise, and I’m very glad that I got the chance. Bringing some modern producers into the fray, yet inspired by their early lives and trying to return a bit to a more authentic sound, the band sounds at the top of their game. Whether they are at the top of their game seems a matter that’s been subject to a ton of debate, but I think I’ll just ignore all that, and enjoy the excellent music. This may be my first extended taste of U2’s work beyond the obvious hits, but I really liked it, and I’d like to hear more. Even if it took giving away their album for free to accomplish that for me, I’d say that’s a win for U2 in my book.

Missy Higgins — Oz

Yet another artist taking the covers-album route, Missy Higgins subverts the usual cliche by exclusively recording songs from her native Australia. For those of us who don’t hail from there, this means most of the songs are pretty unfamiliar, but Missy’s passion for her country’s songcraft shines palpably through each track, and that passion is contagious. “Shark Fin Blues,” a standout, is a gripping, powerful ballad showcase; elsewhere, things go much more uptempo on the sprightly “NYE.” Missy Higgins couldn’t have found a better way to celebrate Australian music–now the world has a taste of exactly what they’re singing Down Under, courtesy of one of the finest Aussie performers there is.

Kat Edmonson — The Big Picture

Kat Edmonson has done a fine job recently of creating her own unique mix of jazz, folk, pop, and singer/songwriter elements, among other things, and “The Big Picture” is an excellent showcase for just how well she does it all. She shows some cinematic flair on tracks like the alluring opener, “Rainy Day Woman.” On the winsome “Avion,” she pays a bit of tribute to 60s-style pop. No matter what style she includes in her palette, she’s very on top of things musically, and makes listening to this album a highly enriching experience. You’d better keep an eye on this girl…it seems like she’s just getting started.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

I freely acknowledge that there were assuredly quite a few terrific musicals this year, but “Beautiful” was the one to really catch my attention, most likely because of its focus…the legendary Carole King, one of my all-time favorite artists. However, that wouldn’t be enough to keep my attention if the musical wasn’t good…but good, it most certainly is. Jessie Mueller as King gives a transcendent performance (one that deservedly garnered her both Drama Desk and Tony Awards), the supporting cast is very solid, and the reworkings of both King’s songs and others of the era are tons of fun. (The one-two punch of closing numbers, the musical’s title tune and “I Feel The Earth Move,” are a rollicking, terrific way to tie it all together.) I may not have been able to see it on Broadway, but this top-notch cast recording shows that “Beautiful” is, well, beautiful.

Ximena Sariñana — No todo lo puedes dar

Returning to Spanish-language music after her last, self-titled album, her first in English, and one that went in a more pop-oriented direction, Ximena Sariñana takes things a bit slower this time around, bringing us an authentic, engaging collection of songs that keep reminding us just how strong she is as an artist. Her voice is beautifully understated, and the production and the writing are the same. These songs just sneak up on you, grab you, and draw you in, little by little. It’s always great to see Ximena back with a new album, and this record is most certainly no exception. The title in English may be, “You can’t give it everything,” but from what I’m hearing, she’s given us pretty darn close to everything with this kind of outstanding music.

Hans Zimmer — Interstellar (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Hans Zimmer is primarily known as an action movie composer. The drum-heavy, pulsing style he typically usually uses in such movies is well-documented, and occasionally criticized. However, the best work he’s done, in my book, is when he variates from that formula, and his most recent score, for the sweeping Christopher Nolan masterpiece “Interstellar,” is probably his most daring, and successful, variation yet. Utilizing a grand, expansive organ sound as a centerpiece, he creates a score more emotional, more epic, more completely and utterly moving than anything he’s ever done (and he’s done quite a lot of things that display those qualities in spades). It’s incredible, and speaking as one who has also been fortunate enough to see the film the score accompanies, I can say that it enhances the movie impeccably. Hans Zimmer is a wise enough composer to get outside himself a bit when he feels like he’s been a bit repetitive, and also wise enough to work closely with his directors when the situation calls for it. Because of these wise choices, the “Interstellar” soundtrack absolutely shines.

Round Nina: A Tribute To Nina Simone

This was an incredibly late-breaking addition to my Best Albums list. In fact, it was so late-breaking that it actually knocked an album off the list. Released just a month or two ago, this all-star tribute to the incomparable Nina Simone, released by legendary jazz label Verve, is both a surprise and a triumph. I quite honestly hadn’t heard of many of the artists featured on this disc (Melody Gardot, Lianne La Havas, Gregory Porter, and French singer Camille were ones that I had), but wow…they all bring their absolute A-game, creating covers that both honor Nina’s incredible legacy, and blaze bold new trails with her classic songs. There is just so much to love about this tribute…everyone is top-notch, and clearly Nina Simone has played an important part in each of their musical journeys. It really shows. If you want to remember Nina right, look no further than this album.

Mary Chapin Carpenter — Songs From The Movie

I’m admittedly a sucker for artists that re-record their songs with an orchestra (you saw Part I of this very list with Laura Mvula doing so and wowing me in the process, and Peter Gabriel’s “New Blood” album, where he takes on his own catalog, is one of my all-time favorites, just to name a few), and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new offering, a retrospective of her body of work, with orchestral arrangements by the incredible Vince Mendoza, is no different for me. I’m hearing many of these songs for the first time on this album, but that doesn’t mean they come any less alive. Carpenter, now older and even more seasoned than she already was when she recorded these songs, gives lovely, assured, world-weary vocals, and the arrangements…good gosh. They’re stunning. (Vince Mendoza is always on top of his game, it seems.) Beautiful and reflective, this is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s impressive level of songwriting, performing, and artistic quality that has kept her thriving in the business for so long.

Leighton Meester — Heartstrings

Leighton Meester has long been first and foremost an actress, but has dipped her toe into the music world in the past. Her resume unfortunately includes the questionable hit “Good Girls Gone Bad,” but is countered by her winning turn in “Country Strong,” where she contributes some respectable vocals. Neither of those outings, however, are quite a logical prelude to this album, which really does wonders in giving Leighton some serious musical credibility. Choosing to go the singer/songwriter route (think late-period Mandy Moore), she pens all 9 of the songs here, and keeps things very low-key, yet each song drives and moves, which makes it all the more compelling. Her voice is soft, yet full of substance and nuance, and adds to rather than detracts from the proceedings. This is an album that’s authentic and real, and shows that Leighton Meester has quite a lot to offer musically beyond her previous pop and country detours. Here’s hoping she makes music even more of a priority in the future.

Hozier — Hozier

What an incredible debut. (I could really just stop this review here, but I should probably expand a bit.) Starting with the now bona-fide hit single “Take Me To Church,” Irish singer/songwriter Hozier, with a devastating mix of soul, rock, folk, and who knows what else, takes us, well, “to church.” His voice is incredibly powerful. His writing is wildly unique, defiantly vibrant, and softly profound. You can tell Hozier knows exactly who he is as an artist, and he’s quite happy to show us a little bit of himself on this record. He couldn’t have introduced himself to the world in a better way, and it’s great to see he’s enjoying widespread success. Record sales or radio plays or not, however, this is a triumphant debut, and chances are, the best is yet to come.

And that’s it for this list. (I will be posting, hopefully tomorrow…yes, I know you’ve heard that before…a short addendum of a few EPs I enjoyed from 2014, as well as a few honorable mentions that didn’t make it onto my top 40 albums. I also hope to get a Song or Music Video of the Day up for the first time in a bit.) I hope you enjoyed it, and if you loved my picks, you vehemently disagree with them, or aren’t sure how you feel…be sure to comment! I love engagement, I’m proud of this list and the journey it’s been in making it, and I don’t care if you don’t quite agree with me on it, I want to hear what you think…that would just make my (blogging) day. Thanks, as always, for reading, and stay tuned for a much-more-active-and-alive Harmony Avenue, full of more heartfelt music recommendations and commentary just for you.