As we head into December and the countdown towards the New Year, it's a fitting time to look back and reflect on the year in music. What new releases did we like, which new bands seemed most promising? Which concerts stood out most, and which music will we recommend or buy for our best friends?
In no particular order, here's my
Top Ten. ~ Cynthia Orlando
1. Grafitti6: "Colours"This 6-member, London-based, very promising new band is headed by singer/songwriter Jamie Scott and producer/songwriter Tommy D (Jay-Z, KT Tunstall). Their debut "Colours" is a fun, energetic collection of richly-textured rock/pop songs that pull from a lot of different influences, particularly soul.
At times, lead singer Scott's amazing vocal range approximates a male version of Annie Lennox, or Maroon 5's lead singer Adam Levine. Comparisons aside, whether he's belting it out on the lively and engaging "Stare into the Sun" or purring right along on the smooth, sultry, Motown-inspired "Calm the Storm," he delivers big time. Produced by Tommy "D" Danvers, virtually every song on "Colours" has a big, rich sound that really pops. A great gift for that extroverted friend who loves a good time. Better yet, buy two copies so you can play one while ringing in the New Year.
2. The Shins: "Port of Morrow"
It can sometimes seem daunting to find new music with get-up-and-dance energy, solid but intricate musicianship with attention to detail, and most of all, clever, poetic lyrics. Finding entire albums that offer all three is rare-to-impossible.
By and far, most every track on the Shins' "Port of Morrow" succeeds in delivering the goods we so crave. Besides their hit single "Simple Song," you'll love "40 Mark Strasse" as much for its sound mix as for James Mercer's vocals and its haunting storyline as he addresses his love interest. Your ears will also fairly drink up "September" - a melodic love song with a mythological feel, and guitar reminiscent of "A Comet Appears" from Wincing the Night Away.
41-year old Mercer has cited The Beatles and Echo and the Bunnymen amongst early musical influences. The lovely and reflective "(Taken) for a Fool" does indeed seem to serve up a pleasingly, very ample portion of Beatles' feel and flavor.
One of the best releases of the year...this one's for the music connoisseur in your life.
The Shins - "September"
3. Scars on 45: "Scars on 45"
Scars on 45's new, first full-length CD, "Scars on 45" generated a lot internet buzz this year - especially on Twitter - and also got a thumbs-up from Billboard.The release from this upcoming new band from England plays up the clear, sincere vocals of Danny Bemrose on gentle songs like "Warning Sign," its opening track.
Most tracks follow a similar sound and feel, showcasing a solid, comfortable setup of guitars, keyboards and drums. Bemrose's plaintive vocals, wrapped up with the nicely melded guitars and harmonies of "Heart on Fire" and "Don't Say," bring to mind Fleetwood Mac (and indeed, Fleetwood Mac is one of the band's inspirations).
Band member David Nova discovered singer Aimee Driver when the two were schoolmates. That's fortunate because her voice is a pitch-perfect match for the harmonies she sings with lead singer Bemrose. They also sound great on separate tracks; when Bemrose sings "We risked our lives on a feeling / it could all work out" on the exceptional, "The Way That We Are," you believe him. Scars on 45 have been touring relentlessly this year. That kind of determination - combined with the impressive performances they deliver live - makes us hope the best for them.
Great gift for that friend who appreciates not-quite-discovered, top-quality kinda music by bands on the way up.
4. Alabama Shakes: "Boys and Girls"
In these times of sometimes shrinking music industry sales, broad audience appeal is something most bands are after. Alabama Shakes should have that one covered. Young adults will love lead singer Brittany Howard's honest vocals that may resonate with them in a similar way that Adele's distinctive and unadorned musical style has. Older music aficionados should easily gravitate towards their sound, which is in many ways reminiscent of the days when new young bands performed covers by CCR or George Thorogood.
The songwriting here is simple, plain and true, and sounds just as good on the 100th play as on the first. And, you'll definitely want second helpings of the piano so beautifully and soulfully played on the title track. If you were lucky enough to catch Alabama Shakes at this year's KINK-sponsored Waterfront Blues Festival, you were lucky indeed.
Buy this one for that friend who hasn't bought any new music since John Fogarty went solo; ten years from now, they'll likely still be thanking you.
5. The Lumineers: "The Lumineers"Without a doubt, one of the most promising new acts of the year is American folk rock band The Lumineers. That's because really great music makes us smile, tap our toes, gets our hearts to open wide. By these standards, their new self-titled debut CD was a huge success.
Lively arrangements and original songwriting come naturally to this talented trio from Denver-via-New York City. Here's the skinny: two out of three band members, songwriters Wesley Schultz (guitar and lead vocals) and Jeremy Fraites (drums) hail from NYC. After relocating to Denver, they fortuitously advertised for a cellist, thereby snagging the talented Neyla Pakarek (cello, mandolin, piano, vocals) through an ad on Craigslist. Good work, guys.
There's lots to appreciate about this fantastic debut, including "Big Parade" and "Charlie Boy." The former is a spritely and colorful account of the celebration and revelry found at a holiday parade; storytelling at its best. Mandolin, violin, and touching vocals on the delicate "Charlie Boy" - a story of war and a soldier's lament - maintain a perfect balance between tension and resolution. Most certainly this threesome seems to be dripping with talent. The newest track getting airplay is "Stubborn Love," a great arrangement for guitar, drums and violin, with a sweeping cadence and perfect harmonies on the choruses. Definite "Grammy" contenders. Get this one for your sister or girlfriend, guaranteed to please.
The Lumineers, "Stubborn Love" Tour video
6. KEANE: "Strangeland"
When "Strangeland" was released in the UK this year, rock band KEANE claimed their fifth consecutive number one album in the UK…a record beaten only by The Beatles. In the U.S., it debuted at the number 6 spot of Billboard's "hot 100" rock albums.
Why the discrepancy is hard to say, because it's easy to see why KEANE's remained so keenly popular in England, especially as we take in songs like Strangeland's "Sovereign Light Cafe." "Let's go down to the rides on east parade / By the lights of the palace arcade / And watch night coming down on the Sovereign Light Cafe." Imagery's a bit like "Born to Run" revisited…only this time, we're picturing East Sussex, not New Jersey.
Aside from their booming hit single "Silenced By The Night" there's the sensational and gripping "The Starting Line," and, possibly the most touching track of all, "Watch How You Go," a parting-of-the-ways song about unconditional love that Chaplin sings with aching vulnerability. Let's salute KEANE with all manner of respect for polishing off yet another CD laden with rich melodies and superior songwriting.
A "must have" gift for the serious music collector in your life - even if that's you - "Strangeland" leaves only one thing left for you and said friend to do: see KEANE live when they play Portland in January.
7. Brandi Carlile: "Bear Creek"
Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has always had a natural, effortless way of singing that resonates; hers is the kind of voice that could make "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" a memorable powerhouse of a song. So when she tackles something as deeply moving as the confessional "That Wasn't Me," she's that much more amazing. Carlile describes it as "a deeply personal song" about addiction and forgiveness - with her vocals against piano and drums and a touch of gospel chorus throughout, it's a great track.
You'll also instantly embrace songs like "Hard Way Home" "Raise Hell" and "Keep Your Heart Young," and appreciate the musical force that is Carlile along with ace musicians, twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth. "Save Part of Yourself" is classic lovelorn Brandi, taking a long, slow look-back at someone dearly missed, singing between-the-lines about yearning, memories, things left unsaid. Nice mandolin touches, too. With its "phoenix rising" theme, the stunning rocker "Rise Again" is the track that didn't make it to radio airplay, but should have.
A little rock, a little folk, a little rock-a-billy…friends and family who love powerful, multi-talented women vocalists with a classic sound will definitely flip for "Bear Creek."
Brandi Carlile, "Rise Again"
8. Jason Mraz: "Love is a Four Letter Word"
Popular musician Jason Mraz's latest work pulls us in with bright, sunny, lighthearted arrangements and smooth vocals perfect for prime-time on this year's "Love is a Four Letter Word."
Like to download a little zen philosophy with your pop music? Mraz's gently uplifting "Living in the Moment" might just resemble that remark: "Got peace in my soul / Wherever I'm going / I'm already home." Indeed, his enlightened philosophies permeate nearly every track. Of particular note: the acoustic guitar, gentle drums and expressive vocals of "93 Million Miles." Within the confines of a 3 1/2 minute pop track, Mraz deftly reminds us of our place here at "home" - planet earth - and, the importance of staying centered by making "home" where our hearts are.
There's also a sensuous vibe to the new pop-infused release that draws us in, in a lovely, relaxing kind of way. That's likely owing to the tempo on most of the tracks, which Mraz describes as "the rhythm of the heartbeat (that) takes precedence on most of this record." This release sounded great this summer, and even better now that the cold, Oregon slogfest is here. A perfect holiday surprise for that person who's a) is the enlightened type b) likes jazz-inspired pop, or c) just works too hard and needs a little help with the "un-wind" side of life.
9. Jakob Dylan & The Wallflowers: "Glad All Over"
Just when we were beginning to wonder if we'd ever hear from The Wallflowers again, here comes "Glad All Over" jolting us into remembering what we love so much about good rock n' roll.
"First One in the Car" has a grim determination and 5-star musical intensity reminiscent of "One Headlight," and is easily one of the best. The sweeping arrangement of "Constellation Blues," including some relatable American storytelling that moves us, is another highlight. Both "Misfits and Lovers" and "First One in the Car" make it around all the bases to home plate, sounding like instant rock classics that could easily become radio airplay favorites. KINK is playing "Love is a Country" these days, yet another commendable track.
Dylan's vocals sound smooth and sure, there's some great keyboard action by Rami Jaffee, and the whole band sounds comfortable in their own skin. The cover artwork is cool, and true music junkies will love reading lyrics and liner notes.
You'll find much to love and appreciate about these 11 great tracks. Get this one for the person in your life you'd like to see more concerts with, so you'll both be ready-to-roll when The Wallflowers come to town!
10. Mumford & Sons: "Babel"
British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons' "Babel" debuted at number one on Billboard this year, and deservedly so. These great rockin' minstrels delivered unto their fans some 12 high-energy tracks that follow an approach similar to their highly acclaimed debut, "Sigh No More."
The hit single "I Will Wait" that KINK listeners have been hearing is representative of much on "Babel" that's earned Mumford such high acclaim and such vast commercial success. Other standouts: "Ghosts That We Knew," "Below My Feet," a great arrangement with stunning harmonies, and "Lovers' Eyes."Whether singing with the honesty and passion of "Holland Road" or pleading for companionship while rocking out in "Hopeless Wanderer,"the band continues to weave compelling lyrics and rich instrumentation into their own unique brand of folk. They sound tighter and more convincing than ever on "Not With Haste," the touching closing track. For that person in your life who thinks folk music's a thing of the past.
Two more? Try The Pines, "Dark So Gold"
Well, I know I said Top Ten…but there are two more that couldn't be left out. If you're in the mood for new music, mellower than hard rock but striking and bold enough to hold your attention, and especially, something off the beaten path of the mainstream…The Pines' 2012 "Dark So Gold" may be to your liking. This 7-member Indie band from Iowa and Minnesota craft quiet, understated compositions with a folk-rock feel and a strong undertow of the blues.
The core of The Pines are musicians / singer-songwriter's Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt. With a sound a bit like a blend of JJ Cale and Bob Dylan, both fairly whisper lead vocals on "Cry, Cry, Crow," their mysterious, brooding first track on the new release. Fans of Mark Knopfler might like them, too.
Here's what it says on their website: "Drawing light out of shadows, Dark So Gold is an album that provides solace in hard times and stands as The Pines’ masterwork to date." Bravo. Get this one for the music collector in your life and win their deep respect, because it's likely he or she doesn't have it yet.
Swift moves from Country-Pop to Pop Powerhouse
She's not exactly rock or on an Indie label, and you won't hear her music on KINK-FM, but that doesn't mean you should leave Taylor Swift off your shopping list. Her newest work "Red" is more proof this artist has truckloads more talent than your average 22-year old musician.
Check out the opening track, "State of Grace" and see if those vocals and pounding drums don't resonate and put some bounce in your step. The more pensive, definitely more countrified "All Too Well" doesn't break any new ground, but in Swift's case, we're just as happy with the old as with the new. This artist has broad age-appeal but is a sure bet for all the 18-24 year-old's in your life.
Always better "live"? Heck, yes! Let's have a standing ovation for...
This year it seemed like every time we turned around here in the Pacific Northwest there was yet another concert announcement tugging at our heartstrings for music and musicians we know and love. And naturally, for every show we made it to...there were 2 or 3 others we didn't get to see.
A few that stood out:
Augustana in Eugene
In May, Augustana delivered a solid performance before an enthusiastic and mostly young crowd at Eugene's Wow Hall. The hallmarks of this heartland rock band are the earnest vocals and consistently strong songwriting skills of their 27 year-old lead singer-songwriter Dan Layus, who cites Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen among his inspirations. Fingers crossed a new record label signs this talented act soon. They rarely disappoint, so if next year's tour dates include your town, don't miss a chance to see them live.
The Shins in Bend
Touring to promote their "Port of Morrow" release, The Shins' performed at Bend's Les Schwab Ampitheater at the start of Summer, generously sprinkling their setlist with tracks from earlier releases. A crisp, thundering presentation of "Mine's Not a High Horse" from "Chutes Too Narrow" was notable, as was their crowd-pleasing run-through of "Phantom Limb" from the 2008 Grammy-nominated "Wincing the Night Away." Naturally The Shins also covered an oldie, their melancholy hit single "New Slang" from "Oh Inverted World," performing it with some tasteful piano touches, and naturally, audience appreciation and adoration ensued. A longer show would've been oh-so-nice…
The Avett Brothers in Troutdale
On a warm summer night in August, the Avett Brothers took the McMenamin's Edgefield stage at 7 pm sharp - no warm-up band, thank you very much - and played for well over two hours. Folks swooned for "And it Spread" and some well-played harmonica on "The Prettiest Thing." Fans also smiled and danced with abandon to their smash hit single "Live and Die" from "The Carpenter." And the raucous and rollicking "Gimmeakiss" from "Four Thieves Gone" brought the house down. An all-around fantastic show.
Coldplay in Portland
You know you've just been to a very special concert when crowds of people from all around you start to spontaneously whoop and holler while leaving the stadium. And why not let off a little steam in the afterglow of a good show? Such was the case at the first U.S. city concert date for the "Mylo Xyloto" tour in April. Coldplay mesmerized fans with light shows, lasers, and of course great music with selections that spanned the last twelve years, playing for almost 2 hours at the sold-out Portland Rose Garden Arena. Special effects were fun, too. Wrist bands dispensed to concertgoers at the door were synchronized with the night's light show and lasers bounced off the walls during the performance of "Clocks." Some of the best moments of the night? Happy, high-spirited audience participation on the songs "Viva la Vida," "Paradise," and "Fix You," (and also, some great guitar work on "Violet Hill").
All-in-all, a great year in music.
As Dave Scott would say…"Rock n' Rolll!"