Thursday, September 17, 2009

Check This Artist Out!

If you're listening to urban or top 40 these days, chances are you've had that Pitbull song, "Calle Ocho" stuck in your head at least once. You know which one I mean: "one, two, three, four, uno, dos, tres, cuatro!" I can actually remember the first time I heard the song. I was listening to Ryan Seacrest's Top 40 through an internet stream and after hearing him preface the track by saying how quickly it'd grown in popularity on the West Coast prior to its radio debut, I started paying attention. Back then, I assumed the song would take some time to filter through from both coasts to the midwest. Now, I hear it everywhere. While I'm shopping, while I'm at the gym, even while I'm trying to sleep at night and some kids are cruising by with their radio blasting and the windows down.

Since the debut of that song I've moved from the Midwest to the West Coast and have discovered some great Hispanic/Latino artists. One worth mentioning is Notch, an artist who I believe could be a significant contender to Pitbull if only he could get that shot at some syndicated radio play. Notch ("Normal Howell") is an American born artist of Jamaican and Afro-Cuban descent. In the nineties, he was helping introduce reggae to North American while performing in the duo Born Jamaican. In 2007, he released a solo album "Raised By The People" - which happens to be the latest album that found its way onto my iPod. It's a mix of hip-hop, R&B, dancehall and reggaeton with both English and Spanish lyrics. There are some truly solid tracks on the album. One of my favorites is the 200 mile per hour "Que Te Pica" which I'm certain I've heard before in my zumba dance class at the gym. The human body is not capable of sitting still while that song is playing. Other tracks of note include the rhythmically interesting "Layaway Love" which I think would make a uniquely exotic addition to a mainstream hip/hop or urban station. Or, for a station that's playing to a primarily hispanic or afro-latino audience looking for something to blast from their car stereo while driving past my apartment at night, I'd recommend checking out "Dale Pa'Tra" or "Bailar Reggae." I've got to say, while Pitbull is busy co-writing that new fight song for the Miami Dolphins, his worthy contender could make good use out of a shot in the spotlight. For more, give the album a test drive on iTunes or visit Notch's official site here.

To accept my "Listen To Que Te Pica Without Dancing Foolishly" challenge, check out the YouTube link below. And seriously, if you know someone who takes Zumba, ask them about this song!


Monday, July 6, 2009

Offbeat Genres: College A Cappella Groups

I can't knock the choir nerds; I was one of them myself back in college. There's something pretty unreal about fifty people weaving ten part harmonies together in perfect unison, grinding into some raw dissonant note against the melodic line of the tenors. But unbeknownst to me at the time, while we were rocking Americana and Mozart, our campus a cappella group was putting a new spin on the stuff that was on my iPod. Without any instrument accompaniment, these groups recreate indie rock with complex layers of harmony and a throwback to doo wap style (with a little beat boxing to cover the all-important drum track). It's no wonder that a joke among these dedicated musicians is "All my friends think they're instruments."

From what I've discovered, most universities seem to have an a cappela group (more specifically, around 1200 exist in the U.S.). These bands have toured the country and even performed on Letterman, Saturday Night Live, and The West Wing. Remember Anoop Desai from this season of American Idol? Yeah, he sang in one too (The UNC Clef Hangers - see video below).

However, even with the help of the Internet, few groups are heard by anyone outside of the campus community. While many record albums, only a handful are available on the iTunes store. I myself might have never heard of the genre had it not been for musician Ben Folds. Along with covering their favorite music from bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Panic at the Disco, Regina Spektor, Muse and Rihanna to name a few, the a-cappellans have dipped heavily into the catalogue of Ben Folds. It's no surprise; Ben Folds is a musician whose music is also a staple of the college curriculum. If you haven't heard his work, you should. He can belt out a bitter rant about suburban hypocrisy one minute, then pull back into a stunningly poetic piece about a couple heading to an abortion clinic, or an old retiree being escorted out of his office. For a quick listen, I'd recommend "Brick" (I think this one even made radio play a decade ago), "Rockin' The Suburbs" or "The Luckiest." You might also ask your local college student/teenager to point you in the right direction.

In April of 2009, Ben Folds released an album that was a result of scouting some of the best college a cappella groups in the country that were covering his songs. The album features groups from Princeton to the University of Wisconsin -Eau Claire and delivers sixteen incredible tracks. Ben himself lends his vocals to two of the tracks, while the remainder are led by some astonishingly talented young soloists. In the background, Ben's piano and modest backing have been transformed by a rich mix of harmonies and the mind-boggling fugue of non-vocal utterances (doh-dohs, ooh-wahhs, dongs, jims, joe-dahs, and Heaven knows what else). Some of the pieces are rendered tenderly in the lyrical choral style, while others resemble what you'd hear if the local Barber Shop Quartet was on an LSD trip. Whatever your tastes in music may be, this is one musical adventure worth checking out.

Here's a YouTube link to the documentary Ben Folds created highlighting the project, which may give you a good idea as to what it's all about.

Or, for more immediate gratification, here's one of my favorite selections from the album. It's The University of Chicago Voices in your Head recording "Magic"

And of course, how could I let you go without a video of Anoop Desai back in his college a cappella days? This is the UNC Clef Hangers cover of Ne-Yo's "Sexy Love" with soloing vocals by the "Noop-Dog" himself.

If you like what you're hearing, I'd recommend searching for the University of Chicago's "Voices In Your Head" album, the University of Wisconsin MadHatters, or the Freshen Fifteen on iTunes. You may also want to check out the annual collections of the "Best of College Acappella" or BOCA (2008 and 2009's albums are also available on iTunes, but prepare for more beatboxing and studio rendering than you'll hear in the others). There's nothing quite like hearing one of your favorite hits reinvented this way!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prom 1959

We're excited to bring you a new blog feature, a flashback to the past and your high school prom! Whether you sported the ultra-shiny pastel prom garb of the eighties or your prom queen balanced her tiara atop a fifties beehive, we'll do our best to provide the soundtrack to your prom memories.

Today, we're taking you back to 1959. The gymnasium is decked out with blue and green streamers and white balloons bob underfoot. Cut-outs of glitter-coated fish hang from the ceiling - the theme of the night, after all, is "Sea of Love". There's not a male head in the house that hasn't been coated with half a jar of Brylcreem. The girls are lovely in satin dresses with full skirts, and have spent the better part of the day pinning and setting their hair to acheive that "natural wave." The excitement in the air is electric - this bash is sure to be a blast. A juke in the corner is stacked up with the playlist of the evening, a mix of dance-worthy rock 'n roll and the all-important slow dance ballads. Tonight's young lovers may have a chance to sneak a kiss while the chaperones are busy refilling the punch bowl.

Our music for the evening begins with the prom's theme, "Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips. Couples pair up, wall-flowers hit their posts. But when "La Bamba" begins to play, the tight formations come apart into a sea of hep teens swaying and jiving American Bandstand style. Now we're cookin'! So don't be a party pooper. Put on your dancing shoes, grab your dream lover, and follow along on a musical journey through Prom Night 1959...

Create your own free playlist at

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Day the Music Hides

On January 18, 2008, Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen and grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger to honor President Barack Obama in the finale of his Inaugural concert (click here for video). With this patriotic gesture, Seeger celebrated a new chapter in American history and closed a chapter in his own. Out of the millions that watched his performance, few might have recalled that fifty years back, Seeger had been labeled anti-American and banned from public performances and radio airplay.

Sixty years before Seeger took the stage in Washington DC, he and three other musicians calling themselves The Weavers landed their first gig in the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City. Shortly after, the group had landed a contract with Decca Records and by 1949 had a hit song with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. Over the next decade, Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman popularized traditional folk songs, inspiring the “folk boom” that followed in the 50’s and 60’s which included The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Hit songs included labor songs and folk classics like “On Top of Old Smoky” “The Wreck of the John B” “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Pay Me My Money Down.” Their inspirational performances were typically sing-alongs, with Seeger shouting out the lyrics before each line.

Led by the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy, the Red Scare of the 1950’s included the investigation and blacklisting of many performing artists suspected of touting anti-American believes. As the Weavers had a history of singing protest songs and folk songs with a leftist and pro-Union slant, they soon came under scrutiny. When the group shied away from their more controversial material, they were criticized by the left-wing press for selling out. Meanwhile, right-wing and anti-Communist groups protested at their performances. Soon, the Weavers had found themselves under FBI surveillance and were blacklisted by the entertainment industry. No longer able to play large venues or get radio airplay, the Weavers lost fans. In 1953, Decca terminated their recording contract and deleted their songs from its catalog.

In 1955, the group reunited to perform a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. As a result, the Weavers were signed by the independent Vanguard Records and a recording of the concert was released. By this point in time, folk music was gaining popularity and the effect of McCarthy’s extremism was fading. While the Weavers found renewed success, however, Seeger left in bad terms. After the group was hired to provide the vocals for a cigarette commercial, Seeger – who was opposed to tobacco – left the group after fulfilling his commitments in 1958. Seeger went on to have a fulfilling solo career.

Given McCarthy’s history of exaggerating his accusations, it’s difficult to condemn Seeger and The Weavers. Though Seeger had become a member of the Young Communist League at the age of 17, he had drifted away from the Party after the war. While with The Almanac Singers, Seeger sang: “Now, Mr. President (Roosevelt)/We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know/But that ain’t at all important now/What is important is what we go to do/We got to lick Mr. Hitler and until we do/Other things can wait.”

Seeger spent a lifetime merging music and political activism and despite differences in opinion, he honored the American system by exercising the right to free speech. Whether or not Americans have become more or less forgiving of the uncommon viewpoint half a century later, today’s controversial artists are undeniably free from political persecution. Artists with agendas (think of recent statements by Eminem and Kayne) will continue to enjoy the freedom to strike a chord with some and discord with others. And a man who was once marked as a political enemy can play the stage at the inauguration of a president.

The Weavers were honored for their struggles during the 2006 Grammys. After receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, group member Fred Hellerman recounted the persecution for the crowd, declaring: "If you can exist, and stay the course -- not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception -- but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

What We're Listening To This Week

Just a little sampling of the artists that have been looping on our iPods this week...

1. Apollo’s Child
This yet-to-be-official young phenome first hooked me with one of his cover songs posted on YouTube, a heartfelt rendition of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” In that moment, nineteen-year old Sean Ryan had earned another fan for his solo project. He calls himself “Apollo’s Child” and is responsible for, as he writes, “everything you hear.” Ryan, who describes his music as a mesh between rock and electronica, has found his way into the modern fanbase by spreading his music across sites such as Myspace, PureVolume, YouTube and Ryan was born into a musical family, inspired by his father’s love for The Beatles and by singing alongside his mother in the choir. Throughout his childhood and early teen years, Ryan perfected his musical talents, learning the arts of both performance and production. Using Apple Garageband, Ryan put together his first multi-track album, titled Masquerade of Aspersions. Though it was originally intended for friends and family only, Ryan later offered the music for free download online. Currently, Ryan is working from the ‘home studio’ in his bedroom to develop vocal tracks and collaboration projects for his upcoming album.

I recommend:
“Let’s Be Honest” - well-produced toe-tapping electronica
“Better Left Unsaid” - you don’t want to miss this meditation-worthy multi-part harmony

2. Bon Iver
Following a helpful suggestion from iTunes, I was fortunate enough to discover the “Blood Bank” EP from Bon Iver. What set these tracks apart from all the rest was the astonishing variability – each song off the EP could be in a different genre of music altogether. Bon Iver is the brainchild of indie folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. The band’s debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was released in 2007. Much of it was recorded during Vernon’s three month stay in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin, a frigid experience which ultimately led to the band’s name – a translation from the French for ‘good winter.’ Bon Iver’s debut album has been highly reviewed in publications such as The Village Voice and The A.V. Club and its tracks have been featured on TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House.” Rolling Stone ranked the debut as number 29 on the Top 50 Albums of 2008 and on January 26 2009, album track "Skinny Love" was announced as the #21 song of the year by Australian national radio station "Triple J." “Blood Bank,” the new EP that iTunes brought to our iDoorstep, was just released on January 20 of this year. From what I’ve heard from these four little gems, I'm very much looking forward to what’s coming from Bon Iver this year.

I recommend:
“Woods” – a rich harmony of synchronized vocals that is masterfully a cappella
“Beach Baby” – the kind of music Dr. Meredith Grey and company would think to

3. Gonzales
Thanks once again to iTunes, a thirty-second sample of Gonzales’ piano soloing made the leap from my earbuds to my brain and got absolutely stuck in there. I have to admit, I wasn’t going to spend the money. But for some reason, I kept coming back. The music would not rest until it was tucked away on my iPod, and I think it’s because there something incredibly unique about this music. It’s hauntingly simple – just a solo piano against a fuzzy silence. But it feels as though Gonzales is discovering each track as he plays, showing me the beauty of something so casual as a well-placed triplet.

Gonzales, whose real name is Jason Charles Beck, is about as unbelievably unique as his music. Suffice it to say, despite being a gifted pianist who made his performing career as a jazz virtuoso, Gonzales is best known for his mic-jockeying and electronic albums. He has authored musicals, enjoyed a pop career in the nineties as the leader of alt-rock band “Son”, won an Emmy for soundtrack composition and then moved to East Berlin to become a “Jewish supervillain” as a lyric-spitting mic-jockey. His subsequent rap albums featured several instrumental tracks which highlighted his keyboarding skills, and in 2004 he crafted his first solo piano album (aptly titled “Solo Piano”) – which became his bestselling, and of course, the album I’m digging this week.

In 2008, having re-signed under Mercury Records, Gonzales shifted once again and returned to his pop vocal style. That is in addition, of course, to his continued role in the Berlin-based hip-hop band Puppetmastaz. (Seriously, I’m not making this up.)

I recommend from “Solo Piano”:
“Gogol” – if this were a movie soundtrack, someone would be sneaking around in the shadows
"Armellodie" - a slightly dark melodic exploration in the style of Schumann

Gonzales' performance of "Gogol"

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Apocalypse Now?

In 1967, rock musical Hair opened with a line that would bring the New Age movement of the 1960’s to the attention of audiences worldwide: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” The opening song, written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt Macdermot, was soon combined in a medley with another track from the musical (“The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” ) and released by The Fifth Dimension. This 1969 single held the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and was certified Platinum. Yet while this song has been listed 57th in the Billboard’s Greatest Songs of all time, it earned this ranking for more than just its musicality. Rather, it is a telling portrait of a cultural era in American history when young people celebrated hope for a time of peace. But the concepts of an “Aquarian Age” have been explored for centuries before the Haight-Ashbury District emerged from the salt marsh of pre-colonized California. Historians have found the concept of this coming age to be a universally accepted belief among ancient cultures, including those of Maya and Egypt and in the practices of early Islam and Christianity. The modern age has widely interpreted these prophecies as spiritual lore and mythology. There is, however, an emerging buzz in the scientific world regarding an escalation in destructive natural events which fall in line with many of these ancient predictions. The new “Y2K” is 2012 – December 21 of that year, to be more specific. We’re not suggesting that on Christmas morning 2012 we should all except to find coal in our stockings and, for that matter, everywhere else. Still, the saga of Aquarius is undeniably a compelling piece of our cultural heritage which offers insight into how and why we embrace these myths of our demise.

For centuries, the alleged knowledge of the Age of Aquarius and warnings of Earth’s destruction have been passed down through both secret societies and accepted religious works. A common element is the marking of great lengths of time using the cycles of the zodiac, or ancient interpretations of real astronomical phenomena. The view of the night sky from Earth changes as the planet wobbles on its turning axis, an occurrence known as precession. Each year, we mark the spring or vernal equinox by the moment when the sun is directly above the earth’s equator, typically occurring on March 21. But the ancient astrologers were looking not at the sun, but instead at the constellations appearing behind it at that point in time. Strictly speaking, the night sky behind the March 21st sun should be the same each year. However, due to precession, there is a gradual shifting in the night sky (The motto of one 2012 doomsday group is “shift happens”). As a result, all twelve of the zodiac constellations eventually pass into this position, tracing a circle that rotates at a speed of one degree every 72 years and is complete in roughly 26,000 years. As each constellation falls close to the equinox position, a new astrological age is recorded. Currently, the vernal equinox occurs closest to the constellation of Pisces. While it may take hundreds of years to shift into the next age (that of Aquarius), there is a critical midpoint occurring between the two ages when the Earth’s equatorial plane aligns exactly with the the center of the galaxy (“galactic alignment”). This galactic alignment will occur on December 21, 2012.

The year 2012 holds even greater significance when considering the Mayan calendar. Notably, the Mayans marked the “The Great Year” as a period of 26,000 years, indicating advanced knowledge of the precession cycle. The Great Year is divided into five periods of varying years, each representing a different “age” of society. Currently, we are in the fourth – which, incidentally, began in 3113 BC and will end in 2012 AD. New Age theorists have looked to Mayan art and writings to predict that the passing from one age to another will bring great upheaval and change. The writers of Hair and its followers believed this change would bring peace and harmony among mankind. But a new popular opinion is that 2012 will mark the destruction of mankind. And like Y2K, the speculation has gone beyond the realm of conspiracy theory and overtaken the mainstream media. A Google search of “2012” brings a wealth of related media from sources such as ABC, MSNBC and Fox News, many of which you will find on the official 2012 site.

Michel de Nostredame (or Nostradamus) is one particularly well-known doomsday prophet. A French apothecary born in 1503, Nostradamus wrote a collection of prophecies that was first printed in 1555. While conspiracy theorists and even the popular press have credited Nostradamus’s for predicting major world events, the accepted belief is that these after-the-fact speculations are a result of misinterpretation of the writings – perhaps, even deliberate re-wording to make the events fit the prophecies. However, with the surge of 2012 speculation, the media has again begun looking towards Nostradamus.

More specifically, the interest is in Nostradamus’ seeming predictions of cataclysmic weather events. Though science has its roots in the practice of magic and astrology, modern science disregards the supernatural. Scientists do admit, however, that the global climate is changing beyond our comprehension. And just as the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon can affect such things as the ocean’s tides, the positions of the stars and planetary bodies interpreted by astrologers also may have an effect on our natural world. December 21, 2012 may be a date generated from myth, but it also the date of a real astronomic occurrence. It is at least scientifically possible that a galactic alignment could affect our climate.

Nostradamus focuses heavily on “great roaring storms” and “flames” as marking the end of our era, leading to correlations to increasingly deadly natural events. One of Nostradamus’ poetic verses predicts “The great city of the maritime ocean surrounded by a swamp of crystal, in the winter solstice and the spring, will be tried by a terrible wind.” Some believe this refers to Hurricane Katrina, claiming Nostradamus saw the glass-windowed skyscrapers of downtown New Orleans and interpreted them as giant crystals. Some have tied his predictions to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis and the emergence of a subterranean supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park.

A further surge in doomsday speculation has arisen with natural occurrences we seem unable to explain or control. All over the world, scientists are struggling to understand the mysterious condition which is wiping away the honeybee populations. Albert Einstein once predicted that if bees were to disappear, man would follow only a few years later. Plant life is reliant on the insects for pollination. A decline could lead to failure of crops, resulting in a shortage of food and the destruction of our livestock population. It is predicted that if the United States has a food shortage, the hundred or so nations that rely on our exports will suffer famine. Malnutrition will lead to increased susceptibility to disease, and the resulting plagues will halt these nations’ own production of food.

All of this adds up to what some in the media call “Apocalypse 2012.” Looking at the breadth of history, one might say that this doomsday panic is no different than the hundreds of others that have come and gone unfulfilled. Nevertheless, it’s a theory that is gaining remarkable popularity. Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) has even centered his latest disaster flick around the subject. Credible news programs have even freely joined the speculation. With a doomsday countdown clock on screen, a straight-faced Geraldo Rivera interviewed a survival expert who spoke of spending Earth’s last days traveling and trying to find a place that we could start our civilization over from scratch.

Ultimately, however, Nostradamus' prediction was never meant to be so grim. December 21, 2012 may be the end of an era, but it may not be the end of the last era. And never, in all of the historical mythical record, does it predict that there will be a single calamity on this date which will destroy us. Indeed, Nostradamus always included the element of choice in his prophecies, even giving his king two predicted futures – one where he was glorified in battle, and one where he dies in a jousting accident. It would be the king’s decisions that would decide his fate. As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: “The fault is not in the stars, dear Brutus, but in ourselves.”
The lyrics of Aquarius speak of the power of man to usher in a more peaceful age, where the lessons of both science and spirituality can guide our society to make choices that lead to the greater good. It is said that more has happened in the 20th century than in all the previous nineteen combined. Progress is speeding up and with it, resources are being increasingly depleted. Man will be forced in the 21st century to solve these challenges. Even if our doomsday predictions turn out to be purely fictional, they still provide a telling picture of our fears as a society. We accept that warfare could escalate to worldwide proportions. We know that our dependence on depleting resources could halt our civilization. Perhaps late 2012 will be the beginning of an era when we stop speculating about the many ways we may be annihilated, but collectively trying to understand why these things still threaten us. Enlightened with that knowledge, the Age of Aquarius may just in fact be something to sing about.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
The age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

When the moon is in the Seventh House
and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
The age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

As our hearts go beating through the night
We dance unto the dawn of day
To be the bearers of the water
Our light will lead the way
We are the spirit of the age of Aquarius
The age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
Angelic illumination
Rising fiery constellation
Travelling our starry courses
Guided by the cosmic forces
Oh, care for us; Aquarius