We’re getting closer to the top of the list! This week I review albums #10 to #6 of my top 25 album pics of 2012. Be sure to check out the links below each review for some great YouTube videos from each album!
#10. Marina and the Diamonds – ‘Electra Heart’
There are times when I’m absolutely ashamed of the US’s taste in pop music when compared to Europe. Marina Diamandis, known by her stage name Marina and the Diamonds has arguably more vocal talent, better range, and great production. But she has lyrics to make you think. Her second full length album is a concept album of sorts, revolving around the title character, a pop starlet diva of a girl called ‘Electra Heart”. She is represented by several aspects of her persona: the Primadonna, the Home-wrecker, the Teen Idle, and Su-BARBIE-a. All were inspired by her first trip to the US and taking note of the way American culture focuses on stardom and glamor, whether it be big stardom, internet stardom, or just feeling the rush of being popular for fifteen minutes. Many of the lyrics are tongue in cheek. Take the revved up opener “Bubblegum Bitch”, a plastic and proud anthem meant to make your stomach churn slightly at what pop stardom has become. “Welcome to the world of Electra Heart”. “Primadonna” follows building on the same idea. This was a big hit in the UK but apparently Marina’s vocal uniqueness scared American radio programmers. “Home-wrecker” feels like it borrows heavily from Pet Shop Boys, with a beat similar to “Love, etc” and has a spoken part that reminds one of “Left To my Own Devices”. She veers from moments of being serious about some sort of empowerment like in the gorgeous and melodic upbeat single “Power & Control”, or pining to be bathed with attention in “Starring Control”.
Then there’s the dark moments of regret in “Teen Idle”. “I want blood, guts & angel cake. I’m just gonna puke it anyway”, and fear of “Oh god! I’m gonna die alone”. This is where the themes of the earlier songs start to take their toll on the character. In “Sex Yeah”, the most empowering song on the collection, Marina sings “Question what a pop star sells you”, and “If women were religiously recognised sexually, We wouldn’t have to feel the need to show our ass-ets to feel free”.
“Hypocrates” has a melody that stands out here and is more of an American pop-rock style song. This is one song that shines particularly when taken out of context of the album theme. “Who are you to tell me who to be?” This is followed on the US edition by “How To Be a Heartbreaker”, an “I’m so innocent” tee-hee about temporary relationships and using boyfriends to get what you want. This is her most recent video and not included on the UK version. Radioactive, a single not really intended for the album follows. This one is more on the clubby side of pop, resembling something like a send-up of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” musically, but not with any deliberately parodic lyrics. Again, why isn’t notice in the States? And that’s her point isn’t it? We end with the trip-hop of the erethral “Fear & Loathing”, posing “Got different people inside my head, I wonder which one that they like best”. Before the epihany to sum up the story, that having everything is really having nothing at all.
I wish all of 2012’s pop releases were as thought out as this one. Electra Heart is definitely an album full of diamonds and looks to be a cornerstone for Marina to go in many ambitious directions as she grows.
“Bubblegum Bitch” (Live)
“Teen Idle” (Live)
#9. No Doubt – Push and Shove
Eleven years is a long time. In that stretch since ND’s last album Rock Steady, all four band members have grown up. In that time Gwen Stefani put out two solo albums and two children. Fans were left to wonder when ND would ever reconvene. Two summers ago, the band did a reunion tour, of which I got to see a show. The show was basically an expanded greatest hits show, but they were in rare form and having a blast being back together in front of their fans. And then nothing. Were they ever going to make new music?
Finally after a long wait, ND released Push and Shove. P&S finds them in a strange place. They are now all responsible parents with a limited recording schedule. They have grown emotionally in eleven years, so they aren’t the young adults they were when they recorded their classic 90’s milestone Tragic Kingdom. In that time Love Angel Music Baby happened. Gwen Stefani became a star in her own right aside from the band. Fortunately, they are all close friends the music on P&S sounds like the new music came naturally. The title track and the album opener are just fun tracks to bounce along to, and have the heavy reggae vibe of Rock Steady. Unfortunately these two tracks did not light up the charts as their first two singles from the album. I suppose many were either expecting “Just A Girl” or “Hollaback Girl”. Instead, “Settle Down” is an ode to being an OCD worrywart. Gwen opens up with “What’s your 20?” and “I’m hella positive for real! I’m all good!” But one thing is sure, it’s funky and fun, and it makes me want to learn to do the crazy dancehall line dance they do in the video. “One More Summer” sounds like the kind of radio hit they need, but unfortunately the album dropped after the summer was over. Maybe a head start on next year? It is definitely a high point. “Looking Hot” was the third single, and a wise choice considering the energy in the song. It’s hard to tell if Gwen is being facetious, or dead serious when asking “Do you think I’m looking hot?”. While the song seems to be adressing the attitude of the Facebook and Instagram age, the band took a lot of flack for a video where they are cast as a tribe of wild Native Americans escaping the grasp of some wild west cowboys. Childhood memories or exploitation? The band pulled the video after some harsh reactions. Regardless of the controversy, the video didn’t quite fit the song, and they soon followed with a video celebrating their fans and their snapshots. I’m still just a tiny bit bitter that my pic wasn’t chosen to be in it. But I digress. Now much like L.A.M.B., this album is front loaded with the biggest high energy songs. So we then slow down with “Easy”, which is a rainy day tune about winning over someone. “Gravity” feels like it comes from the same canon as “Cool”, one of the better serious songs from Gwen’s solo albums, with a slight David Guetta touch to it.
The rest of the album is a bit more rock-based. “Undercover” plays it safe but is still very enjoyable. It’s nice to hear a guitar solo in there, something Gwen’s solo efforts don’t have. “Undone” is quite interesting here, as it is as close as ND has come to a country song. “Sparkle” sounds like classic slowed down ska No Doubt, and could fit nicely on any of their previous albums. “Heaven” is a played-down track that sums up Gwen’s attitude in a few lines, “Not satisfied, not good enough, I want it all!”. “Dreaming The Same Dream” is a nice suitable closer. A song about love and heartache, which really is Gwen’s forte when she’s writing serious songs.
Now. If you bought this at Target, you get an entire second bonus disc. If you can, snatch up this version. It kicks off with my favorite track of the whole collection, a romping rewrite of Adam & The Ants new wave classic “Stand and Deliver”, but changing the beat to somewhere between classic ND and a different Adam & The Ants beat like “Kings of the Wild Frontier”. This song was performed as part of the encore on their tour two years ago and found the band having such a blast that it’s hard not to smile when hearing this one.
The next four tracks are acoustic versions of “Settle Down”, “Looking Hot”, “One More Summer” and “Easy”. Stripped of their glossy production, these tracks are just so much fun. You get a feel of what it was like for old friends to get back together in the same room and enjoy making music again. “Looking Hot” in this style sounds like a song from an old western flick. “One More Summer” is actually twice as powerful with just quiet guitar, strings and harmonizing. “Easy” just packs more punch with piano, drums and a little bit of trumpet at the end. I am glad they gave us both versions.
Last we get three remixes. The Jonas Quant remix of “Looking Hot” is the polar opposite of the acoustic mix, making the song very slick and sexy. Jonas adds a really good second remix here of “One More Summer” that turns the song into a big Ibiza summer anthem. The final remix, “Push and Shove” is by Anthony Gorry. This one is a bit unnecessary. It takes the whole song down to the pace of the chorus and while it isn’t annoying, it doesn’t add much. But all of the remixes contain the actual song and aren’t just bad dub mixes which is a plus. Consider them the added bonuses. But that’s a whole lot of bonus material.
Overall, it’s just so nice to hear music from No Doubt again. This band’s major strength is that they are a lot of fun, and that’s what they bring here. It’s not meant to be a big artistic statement. They just want you to have a good time and Gwen doesn’t care what you think. “Go ahead and stare, I’m a ragamuff!”
“Push and Shove”
“Looking Hot” (Live)
#8. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil
Amanda Palmer is becoming quite the chameleon musician and songwriter. She first caught my attention as half of The Dresden Dolls, making stellar music with only voice, piano and drums. She then made a breathtaking solo album collaborating heavily with Ben Folds called Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, which focused on her songwriting ability and magnified her softer side. After a falling out with the otherwise metal label Roadrunner, she turned to her fans via Kickstarter to get her next project off the ground. But for anyone who was hoping for a new Dresden Dolls album, you are severely mistaken.
This is Amanda’s loud album. Not that there aren’t quiet moments. There are plenty. But this is the album where Amanda gets up on a stool and shouts “I am Amanda Fucking Palmer and I will not be ignored!”.
The album starts with a stage announcer in a cabaret style we think we are used to, then a wall of sound gob-smacks us on “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen)”. Instead of solo voice and piano we have a full blown band with orchestra and lots and lots of reverb. It’s a bit startling at first. The big entrance is followed by a simple rock song “The Killing Type” where Amanda ponders what killing really means and how serious we are about death. Oddly this song sounds very early to mid 80s until she charges in with “But I’m saying it NOW!”. “Do It With a Rockstar” follows, starting almost like a Dresden song before striking a glam pose with “Do you wanna dance, do you wanna fight? Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night” before pondering her cavities and all the things a night out with Amanda would consist of. “Want It Back” is then a stark contrast, starting with a wash of synthesizers, which we aren’t used to. This gives way to a simple piano and guitar rocker with lyrics like “I crushed you with my hamfist”. “Grown Man Cry” is a rare bluesy jazzy rainy day rock track, showing another new style with a conversational vocal delivery. This contains some of her wittiest lyrics on the album, like “It’s not a life decision, I just need you to pick a restaurant”. Rounding out the first half is the piano-based “Trout Heart Replica”, which is a gorgeous ballad more like the style of WKAP.
There is specifically an big procession of an intermission track, and the second set opens up with the almost clumsy (in a good way) drums of “Lost”, as in “I lost my wallet.. I lost my wallet when I got here”, and then pondering how we never really lose a true lover. Next we get a couple tracks more like the Amanda we feel comfortable with, first on the beautiful and pensive “Bottomfeeder”, then my favorite song of the album, “The Bed Song”. This may be one of the best sets of lyrics she has written. It is a simple piano driven story about a couple and the space that grows between them, using their bed as a metaphor. I actually cried a little when I heard it the first time in that way one does at the big ending of a romantic but sad movie. “Massachusetts Avenue” picks up the pace and feels vaguely similar to “The Jeep Song”, like an older sister. “Melody Dean” is a tongue in cheek new wave deliberate ripoff rocker where Amanda sings “I don’t like putting my Sharona in a box”. “Berlin” is about the only song that stretches a bit far for my attention span because of its great detail and changes within. That’s pretty huge though for what could be a simple torch song. The last song “Olly Olly Oxen Free” is a harder rocker and ends the album on an upbeat note.
I realize at this point I’ve gone track by track, but each track warrants individual mention here. This is an album of musical pieces, not just a few great songs with some others to fill it up. As much as part of me really misses Brian Viglione and wants to see The Dresden Dolls make new music together, Amanda’s music stands strong on its own. She’s one hell of a writer and vocalist and she’s not letting the world tell her no.
“Do It With a Rockstar”
“The Killing Type”
“The Bed Song” (Lyrics Video)
#7. Skrillex – Bangarang
I wasn’t sold on Skrillex at first. When friends had started in with “Have you heard any dubstep?” earlier this year, I completely dismissed it. Starting to sound like an old codger, I cited the excellent previous Prodigy album as an example how to represent the harder sound of electronic music. But then I got curious and started a Pandora channel devoted to it to hear some dubstep artists, and while some of it excited me, most of the tracks I was the most into were ultimately by Skrillex.
So I picked up Bangarang. It was cheap, and I figured why not. Now one thing that gets old with true dubstep for me is that it has to follow some form of dub reggae beat. I tend to like my electronic music with a bit more punch.
So the short 7 track EP starts with a blast on “Right In”, which is definitely more on the dub side. Now the effects of this type of music are polarizing. Either you love the harshness of the bass drops and computerized noises, or you hear them as only noise. For me, these sounds are as effective as the when I first heard any of the classic Public Enemy tracks like “Rebel Without A Pause”. It’s an abrasive sound and not meant to be calming. But then Skrillex adds contrast here because the samples used to drive the underlying melody are smooth. It’s a battle between hard and soft.
“Bangarang” comes in next, built on a hip-hop style vocal loop “Shout to all my boss boys… we rowdy!” The song is fairly simple in structure, but the ear candy in the sirens and split second chop ups power this one along on top of a funky hard driving beat that isn’t reggae based at all. This is a fun track to blast out of the windows on a hot day.
Track 3 is a collaboration with Ray Manzarek of The Doors called “Breakin’ A Sweat”. More than a simple remix or mashup mix involving The Doors’ “Light My Fire”, Ray came in the studio to actually collaborate and play variations of the themes, making a new track that sounds more like an homage to the original, complete with a break using Jim Morrison’s interview bit where he mentions music of the furure involving machines. The mix of natural and unnatural makes this track stand out.
Next is my absolute favorite, “The Devil’s Den”, a hard driving pairing with Wolfgang Gartner. Using a more standard but tough 4/4 beat, a squiggly synth line that sounds like it came from “Somebody’s Watching Me”, and then the sound of your computer trying to devour itself. The beat kicks in with washes of effects, synths, dark voices and funked out chaos. This is your brain on ADHD. I imagine if the Bomb Squad of the early 90s were now making electronic music, it would be something like this.
“Right On Time” follows with a dizzying sped up freestyle beat that builds into a dizzying and sound slike a track to get a crowd worked up, before dropping down to a slower go-go groove a la “Da Butt” before racing to a heart pounding finish. “Kyoto” takes things in a much different direction, with a hard beat that sounds kind of like Dub-DMC “Raising Dub” , then giving way to a squealing melody from somewhere exotic. Then rapper Sirah drops some lyrics in the middle. The last riff hits, then we back off into the lighter more calming last track “Summit” featuring one of this year’s new voices Ellie Goulding, but you’d never know the way she has been cut, pasted, and reconstructed to the point of barely understanding anything lyrically. The vocals become another instrument.
The iTunes version of this comes with quite an interesting extra, the “Skrillex Orchestral Suite” listed by someone called Varien. This is an orchestral medley of Skrillex’s best bits and melodies played on strings, piano, and full blown soundtrack style. Gorgeous.
Why Skrillex? Why not any of the others in this genre? Because this style needed a leading example. Perhaps it’s the fact Skrillex a/k/a Sonny Moore started out in a hardcore band, giving some meat to his style of electronic music or EDM or whatever you choose to call it. I feel the influence in there and the urge to take EDM into different places than the typical 4/4 beat monotonous club music it has steered towards. Within a year, commercials now incorporate his styles, and pop stars who never would have tried it are throwing dubstep style breakdowns in their tracks. But despite their watering down of a genre so quickly, this EP has a lot of different styles and ideas all coming together on one slab of plastic. I can’t wait to see what he pulls off next.
“The Devil’s Den”
“Breakn’ A Sweat”
#6. Green Day – ¡Uno!… ¡Dos!… ¡Tre!
With their 2004 album American Idiot, Green Day did the unthinkable. They recorded a concept album for the Ritalin generation. With 21st Century Breakdown, they repeated this formula with another successful but similar concept album. So what next? That’s a frightening thought for a band, to follow your biggest unexpected success. This time around the boys chose to write songs that were not linked by a concept. When they were done, they had enough songs for not only a triple album. Could it be done? There have only been a few successful double albums in recent history, and even fewer triple. In fact The Clash’s ¡Sanandista! is the only one that comes to mind. But in releasing these albums, they treated them like separate entities, giving each a separate release. Each getting one member on the cover, and each showing a different side of the band. Each distinct, but part of one big project. So let’s break down each part.
The first installment blasts off and greets us like an old friend with “Nuclear Family”. Fans of Nimrod will probably be more drawn to this disc like I am. The drums crunch, the guitars ring out, and the songs have maximum singalong potential. “Stay The Night” and “Carpe Diem” sound familiar without sounding tired. “Let Yourself Go” is an almost self-explanitory middle finger bratty anthem to small minded people. “Shut your mouth ’cause your talking too much and I don’t give a fuck anyway!”. Then the boys have some fun on “Kill the DJ”, which ironically is the funkiest track on the album, and sort of recalls an amped up “Guns of Brixton” by The Clash. Through “Fell For You” and “Loss of Control” we jump periods from Warning to Dookie. “Troublemaker”, with it’s handclap rhythm, sounds like it could have come from the Warning period. each song seems to recall a different period of their past. Then you realize that there was always a bit of growth and change in each album. “Angel Blue” could have just as easily been from 39/Smooth as today, albeit with a much higher voiced Billie Joe Armstrong. The closer “Oh Love” take a different turn with a plogging trudging pace. The singalong may be the most apathetic sounding love song ever. And it rocks hard.
Part two takes a different direction. It starts out with an unplugged guitar and an almost Everly Brothers melody on “See You Tonight”. Then the drums kick in and Billie Joe gets downright nasty with the swagger of “It’s Fuck Time!”. This is a startlingly new sound for band. Made all the more alarming when the song was performed during Billie Joe’s onstage antics at the iHeartRadio show that made all the headlines. It was almost meant to be sung under the influence. This volume almost races past you engines blasting, through the fury of “Stop When The Red Lights Flash”, the slower but hard rocking crawl of “Wild One”, and the wild abandon of “Makeout Party”. But rather than being simply a compilation of the band’s best moments, these songs are laced with homage to 60’s and 70’s rock and roll that are new territory on a Green day album.
The standout here is “Stray Heart”, equal parts Motown, Iggy Pop “Lust For Life”, and original Green Day. Both Mike Dirnt’s bass playing and Tre Cool’s drumming shine on this one. The energy these guys have when they are having fun is undeniable.
The other song to check out here is “Nightlife”, which unlike anything the band has tried before. A slinky sleazy bassline plays backdrop to Billie Joe’s chorus and verses sort of rapped by Lady Cobra. Then after the fast Beatleseque rocker “Wow! That’s Loud”, the album ends with Billie and a guitar on “Amy”, drenched in reverb and ending on a somber note.
The powerhouse third part of the trilogy. This is where the band pushed things forward. We start with a waltz. Seriously. “Brutal Love” is a waltz that builds on GD’s sense of melody and builds up to resemble the Green day we love with a new twist. “Missing You” returns to more of a typical sound, yet strong. This album more closely resembles the sense of exploration that permeated the last two concept albums. “Dirty Rotten Bastards” is an enthusiastic multi-part track. “X-Kid” has a riff and intro that almost could have been a hair metal stadium hit if another band were singing it. The most bizarre lyric comes in “Everyone’s drama queen… is old enough to bleed”, with a shuffle that could almost be Country Western. The big finale is one of the best tracks of all three sets, the gorgeous ballad, yes.. *ballad* “The Forgotten”. Unfortunately tied to the last Twilight soundtrack earlier, it now has a proper place on this sprawling set. Green Day with emotion and strings is not a bad thing when they have the conviction to make it work
If you can only get one of the three, I would say it depends on what qualities you like in Green Day. Pining for the days of Nimrod and Warning again? Go with ¡Uno!. Miss the harder edge of Insomniac and maybe even Kerplunk with a little Foxboro Hot Tubs thrown in? Go with ¡Dos! Do you wait in anticipation to see what Green Day does next? Go with ¡Tre! All three have many spectacular moments, so I say get ’em all. With over 35 tracks you have plenty here to satisfy your craving.
“Kill The DJ”
That’s all for this week! Check back next week when I reveal my top 5 albums of 2012.
Comments? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you. Have a great Holiday season!