Taylor Swift probably sold the most records this year, an entity named The Weekend apparently wrote and produced many of the bigger hits, and Kendrick Lamar made a lot of people hear hip-hop differently. Still, 2015 continues the ongoing diffuseness of pop music. No one singer or song or genre really defines the age. Further, no central medium (i.e. TV, Youtube, radio) speaks to the needs of all or most. It’s a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us and hope for some nourishment.
As the year winds down November is a great time to reflect on the music that stood out as well as books and films worth adding to your collection. 2015’s Riffs, Beats & Codas Raves & Faves:
Best BIG POP song of the year: “Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
The biggest radio hit/pop song of the year is also the best. On this Morris Day& The Time/Prince inspired slice of mid-1980s style funk Mars, one of contemporary pop’s greatest pastiche artists, struts his stuff. As a vocalist and performer Mars and his entourage of performing singers (singing performers?) bring out all the song’s colors in full force delivering some of the more dynamic TV performances in ages via a Westside Story-ish strut + call-and-response interplay.
Most Notable music on film:
Documentary film: Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia)
Amy, a documentary about Amy Winehouse’s career rise and descent into addiction and ultimately death, is as much about the voraciousness of celebrity as it is about the musician. In the film success amplifies Winehouse’s vulnerabilities to addiction, and breeds a willful callousness and indifference among many in her entourage toward her wellness.
Narrative film: Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad)
Love & Mercy (starring Paula Dano and John Cusack) upturns the traditional static rags-to-riches biopic by bringing viewers into some of the touchstones of Brian Wilson’s life including sketches of his compositional prowess, his gentle rapport with musicians, especially in the studio, and his complex relationships with his family. By showing you Wilson as a young man in his creative prime, and as an older, more confused man seeking to balance creativity with the need for stability as he pulls through debilitating co-dependence, the film brings you closer to understanding the whole man with refreshing efficiency.
Most Notable new books on music:
Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking) by John Szwed
Szwed’s book is one of the more incisive and original takes on Holiday’s storied life and influential career. He probes beneath the surface of established myths about her life to reveal new layers. Further, by focusing primarily on the impressive range of musical innovations she pioneered, including her sophisticated rhythmic prowess and advanced melodic embellishments, he provides a fresh take on a legendary figure.
Who should sing Ol’ Man River? The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press) by Todd Decker
Cultural appropriation remains a vital issue and Decker raises compelling questions about the oft-recorded standard “Ol’ Man River” sung most famously by Paula Robeson in Showboat. After exploring the song’s origins, he analyzes the different approaches vocalists and musicians have employed in their interpretations of the song across genres and era. In doing so he unpacks the complex evolution of racial attitudes embedded in popular culture over the 20th century.
Most Listenable Album: Pageant Material (Kacey Musgraves; Mercury Nashville)
Country musician Kacey Musgraves has one of the clearest and boldest voices in popular music. Proving her debut Same Trailer, Different Park was no fluke she has made a funny, poignant, and well-observed album premised on the virtues of integrity and authenticity. Musgrave is a warm, appealing personality whose album has a near perfect balance of melodic and textural variety, smart wordplay, and rhythmic range.
Best Party Album: Dee Dee’s Feathers (Dee Bridgewater, Irwin Mayfield & the New Orleans Orchestra; Okeh Records).
Dee Dee’s Feathers teams jazz’s finest vocal improviser with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Bridgewater and company take on the classic New Orleans repertoire including Louis Armstrong classics like “Do You Know What it Means to Miss new Orleans” and “What a Wonderful World,” as well as a highly personalized, stretched out “St. James Infirmary” with a full complement of brass, and a “New Orleans” featuring an extended vocal plunger solo from the singer. Her duet with Dr. John on “Big Chief,” the “Treme/Whatcha Gonna Do” medley, and the throbbing “Congo Square” are especially fun, uniquely New Orleans performances that make full use of the band. There are also interesting detours including Bridgewater’s take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the charming original title track. At turns wistful but mostly jubilant she and the Orchestra are playing at full blossom making it the most festive vocal jazz record of the year.
Less-is-More Awards: Just You Just Me (Karen Marguth; CD Baby); The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap; Columbia Records)
Voice + Piano: After his cycle of rather gimmicky duet sets Bennett finally released a solo album with The Silver Lining where he and jazz pianist Bill Charlap, and on some tracks a trio, record some of the signatures from Kern’s formidable songbook. Bennett is at his best navigating the tricky melodies, complex harmonies, and unusual modulations of songs like “All the Things you Are,” and capturing the essence lighter fare like “I Won’t Dance” and the wistful “Yesterdays.” His vocal flexibility and interpretive focus yield some of his strongest, most jazz-oriented performances ever.
Voice + Bass: On Just You Just Me vocalist Karen Marguth and bassist Kevin Hill build from the promise of previous efforts and tackle classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” “I Got it Bad,” and “Imagination” perfectly capturing their melodic and rhythmic contours, and emotional essence in the sparsest of settings. She makes her greatest impact on her scat-laden rendition of the title track, a surprisingly blues-y and quite humorous rapid fire “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Taught Me,” and fresh songs like her loping version of Phoebe Snow’s “Harpo’s Blues” and the charming Johnny Mercer tune “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood.” Other inspired choices include takes on Nellie Lutcher and Rickie Lee Jones. Marguth is quite assured in a variety of modes, and she and Hill have faultless chemistry.
Most Memorable concerts:
Angelique Kidjo (May 15, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): She sings, she dances, she inspires, she soars: the ageless Kidjo, an eclectic writer and performer originally from Benin, can galvanize a whole room with her energy and simultaneously make everyone in her audience feel welcome and loved. Kidjo and her band, with whom she has delicious chemistry, delivered an eclectic multi-lingual program of riveting pop music.
Gregory Porter (February 20, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): Porter is the most exciting male singer in vocal jazz. He is one with his instrument which he uses with astonishing force and finesse. Running through his relatively small but deeply personal repertoire he stuns on his rendition of Oscar Brown’s “Work Song” and brings you deeply into his soul on personal anthems like “Painted on Canvas” and “Musical Genocide.”
Best live TV performances:
Alabama Shakes “Don’t Wanna Fight,” on Saturday Night Live (3/1/15):
Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” on Saturday Night Live (11/23/14):
BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:
Essay collection: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
Coates blends an epistolary format with autobiography to address his teenaged son. Coates details an American pathology that consistently renders black bodies vulnerable to exploitation and violence ranging from 17th century enslavement to current struggles against police brutality. Boldly defying our predilection for optimistic endings, especially regarding cultural divides, his outlook is jaded, cautious, and bracing.
Film: 99 Homes (directed by Ramin Bahrani)
In this narrative films set in Orlando circa 2010 construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home and the real estate vulture who savors this moment is Rick Carver (played with delicious contempt by Michael Hannon), a hard boiled, unsentimental agent who uses the mortgage crisis to his advantage, acquiring properties from evictees and exploiting abandoned properties for wealth. The desperate and jobless Dennis ends up working for Carver making quick cash through performing various duties but questioning the moral price of his newfound fortune. Bahrani’s story balances the topical with the philosophical depicting the roots of the mortgage crisis and the perverse range of moral pathways crises engender in even the best of men.
Memoir: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)
Jefferson delves into her personal history growing up in an upper middle class family in Chicago in the late 1940s to illuminate larger questions that haunt the black elite. While tacitly acknowledging the hard work and good fortune of many enterprising African-Americans Negroland frequently asks readers to consider how colorism and classism shaped the ascent of many blacks who gained some modicum social acceptance, and depicts the emotional toll the pressure for respectability has had on the mental wellness and self-esteem of generations.
Novel(s): Loving Day by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau); The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux)
In these hilarious, searing, and clever satires Beatty and Johnson create fictional worlds whose inventive humor is based in poignant realities about navigations of racial identity in the U.S. Johnson’s depiction of a half Irish-half African American man returning home to Philly to a rundown mansion purchased by his late father and discovering a daughter he never knew in Philadelphia is a fertile playground laced with characters and scenarios that raise lingering questions about the construction of race and the perils and pitfalls of racial authenticity. Beatty’s depiction of a fictional all-black community in L.A. is narrated by a young man raised by a radical intellectual, killed by police, who proposes a radical idea to bring back segregation. Beneath Beatty’s brilliant wordplay and often absurdist scenes lie some illuminating truths about embodiments of race in 21st century U.S. life.
Ornette Coleman (jazz musician)
Andrae Crouch (gospel musician)
Lesley Gore (pop musician)
B.B. King (blues musician)
Ben E. King (R&B musician)
Mary Murphy (jazz singer)
Percy Sledge (R&B musician)
Clark Terry (jazz musician)
Allen Toussaint (pop/rock/R&B musician)
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