046. The Requisite “Best of 2011” Post.

I, like probably ever blogger out there, feel a great need to usher in the new year with a list of my resolutions and my favourite things of the year. So this first blog post will be about my favourite music of the year — in a slightly different way than most people are doing it.

What follows will be a summary of my musical loves and obsessions over the past year. Instead of listing the best albums or singles that came out in 2011, I’m going to be writing down the songs I most listened to, the albums I was most obsessed with — whether they were from 1970, 2000, or this past year.

So, without further ado, here they are, listed in no particular order:

MY 10 MOST LISTENED TO ALBUMS THIS YEAR:
1. Immersion — Pendulum
2. We The Fallen — Psyclon Nine
3. The Dexter Soundtrack
4. Lungs — Florence & The Machine
5. The Social Network — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
6. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — Kanye West
7. Hail to the Thief — Radiohead
8. In Silico — Pendulum
9. El Monstruo — The Vincent Black Shadow
10. How to Destroy Angels — How to Destroy Angels

MY 20 MOST LOVED & LISTENED TO SONGS:
1. Until Then — Benoit Pioulard & Rafael Anton Irisarri
2. Ghosts ‘N Stuff — Deadmau5 ft. Rob Swire
3. Propane Nightmares — Pendulum
4. Crush — Pendulum (here is the original version, not the radio cut)
5. Cold War — Janelle Monae
6. Alright (Ratatat Remix) — Memphis Bleek
7. Kill Everybody — Skrillex
8. Revival — Beats Antique
9. Girl with One Eye — Florence & The Machine
10. Some Kind of Nature — Gorillaz ft. Lou Reed
11. Save the World (Knife Party Remix) — Swedish House Mafia (the original, which is also awesome and nominated for a Grammy, is here)
12. We The Fallen — Psyclon Nine
13. Stripper — Soho Dolls
14. Precious — Depeche Mode
15. The Prayer — Bloc Party
16. Gorgeous — Kanye West ft. Kid Cudi & Raekwon
17. Unison — Knife Party
18. The Weight — Thrice
19. MANIAC — Kid Cudi ft. Cage & St. Vincent
20. Voodoo People — Pendulum

Additionally, not including rereads, this is a list of the ten best books I read this year — an honourable mention goes out to China Miéville’s The Scar, which I reread quite enthusiastically this year for approximately the fourth time.

THE 10 BEST BOOKS I READ THIS YEAR:
1. Embassytown — China Miéville
2. Cold Comfort Farm — Stella Gibbons
3. Magic For Beginners — Kelly Link
4. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke
5.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (and the other books in the series) — Alan Bradley
6.  The Book Thief — Markus Zusak
7.  Senseless — Stona Fitch
8. The Butcher Boy — Patrick McCabe
9. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers — Jack Finney
10.  Welcome to the Monkey House — Kurt Vonnegut

Resolutions & writing updates will occur in the near future!

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024. Gaga Vs. Monaé: A Musical Throwdown.

While everybody else is busy fawning over Lady Gaga for her so-called “innovation” and “creativity” and “provocative image”, I’d like to propose a more deserving artist as the one who should (and will) change the pop scene as we know it: Janelle Monáe.

She’s cultivated a specific image. She has a concept: her past two albums have laid out a whole story about a brand new and rather dysfunctional world. Her music is both accessible and edgy, incorporating elements of classical music, jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, and soul — to name just a few of the easily discernible genres. And Christ, can she sing.

Like Gaga, Monáe is doing something different. Unlike Gaga, Monáe doesn’t specifically try to incite controversy (Gaga used to do it naturally; now she’s trying far too hard), and she has come up with something uniquely her own, whereas Lady Gaga borrows heavily from David Bowie and Marilyn Manson (if you don’t believe me, search Manson’s Omega period — think Mechanical Animals — and compare and contrast with some of her fashion choices and music videos), and more recently, Madonna. Granted, Monáe also borrows heavily from Michael Jackson in terms of style — but she doesn’t claim his influence as her own doing. Lady Gaga now believes she is an artiste, but her juvenile, poorly written lyrics, lack of depth, and her deliberately over-the-top antics (think the “Born This Way” music video and Grammy performance, which she views as avant-garde, but which is really just a cry for attention because there’s hardly any artistic merit or deeper meaning in any of her music) belie this claim.

Janelle Monáe is different: although she portrays a certain “character” and presents herself in a specific light to the general public as all pop artists do, she is somehow more human and more honest. And, frankly, she’s more talented.

These are two of my favourite songs by her:

022. Rap: The Good Stuff.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of rap. While I’ve often disparaged the brand of hip hop favoured by clubs and commercial radio, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of incredible rappers out there right now, some of whom are wildly under-appreciated or viewed as being “cliché” or old and tired:

Lupe Fiasco: Great delivery, catchy beats, but most of all, behind his lyrics there’s a distinct absence of violence, foul language, and shock value. He’s a devout Muslim, and he’s hellbent on changing the face of rap as we know it. His lyrics are intelligent, political, and inspiring. There are no drugs, no complaints about bitches or niggas — just heartfelt narratives with solid morals and an optimistic aura, and above all, a clear feeling that Lupe Fiasco knows exactly who he is both as a rapper and an individual. Tracks to check out: “The Interlude,” “Words I Never Said,” “Kick, Push II.”

Kanye West: Go ahead, say it: Kanye’s overrated. I thought so too, until I heard his newest record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And god, is this album flawless. Granted, there are a lot of guest artists on this CD, including Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Bon Iver, John Legend, and Jay-Z, but it all melds together beautifully. His choices of songs to sample are brilliant. I’ve never cared for Kanye up until now, but there’s something so honest and so epic about this release that I can’t help but reevaluate any opinion I’d ever had of him. Tracks to check out: “Gorgeous,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” and “Lost in the World.”

Eminem: I will defend Eminem til the death. I have loved him for a very, very long time, and most people who dislike him have not been introduced to his early work, namely The Marshall Mathers LP and The Slim Shady LP. His earlier work, while rife with violence, drug use, and profanity, has unparalleled creativity, and his delivery, is, in my opinion, the best of any rapper out there. There’s a passion you can hear in his voice; a sincerity, even through the fictional stories he tells. And most of his earlier lyrics, up until around The Eminem Show incorporated characters he’d created, or stories that may have happened in some way but were clearly exaggerated — such as “Stan,” for instance, one of his best known songs. Although he’s gone through some rough patches recently, Recovery is heading in the right direction after the misstep that was Relapse. Tracks to check out (excluding the obvious singles): “Still Don’t Give A Fuck,” “Guilty Conscience,” “Lose Yourself,” “Brain Damage,” “Cleaning Out My Closet,” and “Role Model.”

Kid Cudi: He’s the hipster of the rap world, but that’s okay. He has a deceptively calm delivery — something that’s a little like a mixture between Snoop Dogg and Kanye, which I think is interesting. He chooses really interesting songs to sample in his music, working over artists like Vampire Weekend and Ratatat. He’s currently working on concept albums, which, on the whole, I’m not terribly thrilled with, but his individual songs are rather good, and he’s hopefully bringing melodic rap back to the table. Tracks to check out: “Alive,” “Day N’ Nite,” “Mr. Rager,” “Scott Mescudi vs. The World,” “MANIAC,” “Trapped in My Mind,” “Cudderisback.”

The person I’m excited to check out next is Nicki Minaj — and she’s changing rap, too. Her verse in “Monster” by Kanye West is extremely memorable, and intrigues me very, very much. So when I check that out I’ll let you know my thoughts.

020. I Do Not Approve of Changing Lead Singers.

The only thing more upsetting than a band breaking up is a band replacing its lead singer.

Granted, it’s distressing when any member of a band leaves. But I will argue that, for the most part, drummers, bassists, keyboardists, guitarists, etcetera, are able to be replaced without disturbing the band’s inherent character–for the most part. I’ve seen instances in which this is not true: for instance, in Guns N’ Roses, when, a decade after the band’s last album, Axl Rose pulled together a mostly brand new crew of misfits for Chinese Democracy. Despite his iconic vocals, the melodies and guitar parts sound completely passionless; without Slash, the band lost its character. Same thing happened with Avenged Sevenfold when Jimmy Sullivan, aka The Rev, died last year. He’d become more and more involved with the writing process, and any well-tuned ear could hear his immense talent and his distinctive drumming style. Although Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare featured the legendary Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater) on percussion, that quirkiness was gone and will remain gone. Of course, in Avenged Sevenfold’s case, the band may never recover: they didn’t lose a band member, but rather someone more akin to a brother.

But for the most part, when a singer leaves the band, it changes everything. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. In my opinion, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s best era was when Mike Patton temporarily took over vocals. It Dies Today and From First to Last, on the other hand, completely fell apart when their singers left.

The band I’m writing this post about, however, is The Vincent Black Shadow. I discovered them back in the day — god knows how — and I’ve never met anyone who knows who they are. They’re obscure, pursuing a genre of music that’s macabre and eccentric and energetic: music’s equivalent of gonzo journalism. And their tribute to Hunter S. Thompson is obvious: Their name is a significant player in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and their music reflects Thompson’s drug induced (or abetted) tirades. It’s frenetic, manic, with lyrics about blood and gore and death and, of course, love. I fell in love with them because of their unique style, but integral to that style is singer Cassandra Ford.

Vocally, she’s Gwen Stefani’s evil twin; same enunciation in a lower register. She wears a necklace of human teeth, sings with a distinctive flair and pronunciation, and it’s Cassandra who is instrumental to the band. And yet, when I downloaded the band’s new EP today, I realised, to my dismay, that Cassandra was no longer singing.

Cassandra was one of the first female singers I really identified with. She’s my idol in the world of female rockers. The Vincent Black Shadow has never been quite as forthcoming with their writing process as other bands, but I always got the impression that Cassandra was responsible for much of the lyrical work, and had a hand in the musical aspect as well.

As noted above, there have been instances when lead vocalists have been replaced and the band has been better for it. But there is a caveat to this: the band can only be better if the new singer has something different to bring to the table and does not simply attempt to fill the old singer’s shoes. Singing is not the same as playing an instrument; with a guitar, you can change the style in which you play to emulate a particular guitarist, and you can mimic the sound by using the same model of guitar. With singing, you have what you have.

The Vincent Black Shadow, without Cassandra, did something that angers me more than anything else: they found a singer who can, more or less, imitate her. Nikki Hurst, granted, isn’t a bad singer. But she’s trying to fill Cassandra’s position, and it comes off sounding metallic and false, a parody of what used to be genuine. The musical style is more or less the same, but there’s something … wrong about it. Like a knockoff of a unique painting.

I miss Cassandra, too, TVBS, but if you’re going to get a new singer, get someone who really is new — not just a poor imitation of something irreplaceable.

010. Trent Reznor Speaks, I Swoon.

So today I went into the city with Jen. I met her boyfriend, who is really quite sweet. He has the Best Friend Stamp of Approval. We went to an Irish pub, where we ate delicious foods, drank Duvel (!!!) and then afterwards, went to the main event: Trent Reznor speaking at Arts & Leisure Weekend.

Originally, I had no clue what the venue was going to be like, or what the event would be structured like. But it was brilliant. The “interviewer” was a wonderful music writer from the NY Times, and Trent talked about everything from scoring The Social Network to How to Destroy Angels to Nine Inch Nails to his creative process to his future plans. He was extraordinary. Not only is he incredibly intelligent, he’s well-spoken, he’s genuine, very self-deprecating, and surprisingly witty and funny. And damn, he looked good, too. The talk should be online now, and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t care much for Trent or his music. He really has some great insight and he’s inspiring, too. Jen isn’t all too familiar with NIN, but she found the talk just as fascinating (if not quite as groundbreaking) as I did. And wow … hearing him discuss how he writes music and how he thinks about music was just … phenomenal. Not to mention that he has such a great respect for other artists. Basically, Trent Reznor is my perfect man. Find him for me about twenty years younger, and not quite as married, and I will be the happiest girl on earth.

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