My what a box set: Phil Spector: Back to Mono; win a copy!

July 15th, 2009

Phil Spector is more in the news for being a convicted murderer these days than anything else. Before that, people may know him for screwing up Let It Be (at least in the opinion of one knight).

But I wanted to bring some focus back to the genius music he produced and one of my favorite box sets of all time: Phil Spector: Back to Mono. It’s has three discs of Spector singles and the full length Spector Christmas album as the fourth disc. It’s an overview of the Wall of Sound, with its huge drums, layered production and diverse instrumentation. You can also hear that Spector introducing Latin elements into pop songs in a time when that was not yet commonplace.

Of course it has the hits and Phil Spector’s hits are among the best pop songs made: “Be My Baby”, “He’s a Rebel”, “Then He Kissed Me”, and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” among them. Then there are many other songs you’d recognize, but the real value in the set are the lost gems hidden in here. I love Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem”, a light and straight-forward soul ballad with some great orchestrations and fun vocal lines. Lee Curtis’ “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” borders on doo wop and has a driving rhythm and a fantastic chorus. “Uptown” by the Crystals is a Latin-tinged love song with a great pre-chorus->chorus build.

“Heartbreaker”, also by the Crystals, has a harder groove and more swagger than most of Spector’s numbers, putting it closer to a Motown track than most. It also has a classic sax solo in it. Treasures’ “Hold Me Tight” is built upon a percussion line than may be close to “Be My Baby”‘s in how good it is. The vocal melodies are also really catchy. It holds a fairly rare distinction of being a Beatlest cover that is much better than the original.

The Crystals – Heartbreaker (mp3)

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Treasures – Hold Me Tight (mp3)

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This is really a fantastic box set and I recommend it to anyone that’s interested in oldies, girl group or soul music.

While going through some of my stuff, I found an extra, unopened copy of Phil Spector: Back to Mono. I bought this with my own money, but I’ll give it away to one lucky reader. To enter to win the box set, leave a comment with the song on the collection you most look forward to listening to again and again by 11:59pm Sunday July 19. (See here for tracklist.) I’ll pick one winner at random. Be sure to put a valid email address because I’ll need to contact you to get an address to ship it to if you win. This contest is open to residents of US and Canada only.

You can buy it at amazon.

Update: The contest is closed and with the help of random.org, I’ve chosen Will as the winner. Thanks for the entries!

3 great tracks (that you might not know) from Motown’s first year, 50 years later

January 15th, 2009

money (that's what I want)
a reissue of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, Motown’s first big in-house hit

As I mentioned earlier this week, Motown (official site) turns 50 years old this week. Back then it was called Tamla Records, becoming Motown in 1960.

By my count, Tamla released all of 13 singles (A and B sides, 26 songs) in their first year. I really started digging into these songs a couple weeks ago. I’ve been going in depth into the Motown stuff for a couple years now, but my time has largely been concentrated on the 1963-67 era.

I’ve been reticent to explore the early years because I figured it’d be cheesy or unpolished. (After all, the songs produced in the Motown hit factory were polished at every step and were great before it.) 1959 was before Holland-Dozier-Holland and other famed production teams came to define the Motown Sound. As it turns out, in some case these early Motown songs are cheesy or unpolished, but in wonderful and charming ways. There are also hard hitting doo wop tracks, great instrumentals and classic R&B songs in there.

Lastly, I just didn’t know that many songs from that era. I knew “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but just not that many of the songs were familiar. I certainly don’t think a song–Motown or otherwise–needs to be well-known to be good, but as I found while listening to later Motown collections, having some hits helps guide you through and to the unknown songs and gems.

3 great tracks (that you might not know) from Motown’s first year

  • The first single and the first hit for Motown/ Tamla was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me”. Well, that’s a bit misleading. It was a hit for United Artists after it got too big for Tamla to handle. This song definitely doesn’t have that “Motown sound” yet, but it’s great. I love fluid vocals, the bass/ bass vocals line and the light backup vocals.
    Marv Johnson – Come to Me (mp3)

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  • I’m a total sucker for hard-edged, swaggering soul instruments. This one has more swagger than it knows what to do with, anchored by that baritone sax line. When I listen to this, I know why people used to go out dancing to pop music.
    the Swing Tigers – Snake Walk (Part 1) (mp3)

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  • This song is just a bit goofy, but in a very charming way. It’s got a pretty 50s sound to it, pretty doo-wop. The harmonies during the pre-chorus are my favorite.
    The Satintones – Going to the Hop (mp3)

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All of these are available on the amazing The Complete Motown Singles, Vol 1: 1959-1961. If you’re into digging for Motown gems, it’s worth the investment.

best of 2007: releases (albums, EPs, box sets)

December 18th, 2007

This is my second in a series of “best of” lists for 2007. You can see my picks for best concerts. I also made “best of” lists for the following years: 2006, 2005, 2004.

For more “best of” lists, check out largeheartedboy’s master list of 2007 lists (meta!).

I call this my best releases of 2007 but that’s not quite true for a number of reasons [1] including that it’s a bit ridiculous to define my rather arbitrary taste as the one that matters. See below for a full explanation. In short, I try to balance how good I think it is (which is swayed by my expectations), an “objective” rating of goodness, and how much I wanted to listen to it (translating into how many plays it got).

If you want to see what albums I seriously considered for this list, look here.

Best dozen releases of 2007

  1. Or, the Whale – Light Poles and Pines (original post)
    This wasn’t supposed to be this good. It’s a debut indie country rock album from a San Francisco band. From the first listen, I knew I liked this album: it had great singing and orchestration, catchy songs and a certain energy about it. and I was alternately obsessed with “Call and Response” and “Fight Song” (and “Prayer for the Road” and…). But I say that it wasn’t supposed to be this good because while I was surprised by it, it’s not life-changing or transcendental; it’s just a really consistent set of really good songs. This year I’ve played this album (according to last.fm and that doesn’t count the repeated plays in my car) almost twice as much as any than any other single album.

    Or, the Whale – Call and Response (mp3)

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  2. Magnolia Electric Co. – Sojourner (box set) (original post)
    This is a pretty stunning collection of three album-length CDs, one EP and various other things (DVD, medallion). My love is mostly concentrated in the gliding full band sounds of Nashville Moon and the often-breathtaking, stark and solo Shohola. The Sun Sessions EP and Black Ram are also not without their merits. “Shiloh Temple Bell” off of Shohola–a song that has broken me with its beauty more than any other this year–is practically enough to get this box set into this list, but there are many other strong efforts and each disc presents a new and consistently good sound.

    Magnolia Electric Co. – Shiloh Temple Bell (mp3)

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  3. the National – Boxer (original post)
    This is the first National album I really listened to and after hearing it and becoming obsessed with it, I listened to Alligator and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers quite a lot. This is their best yet and what sets it apart is the orchestration. “Fake Empire” is a brilliantly arranged song, for instance, with the slow build of layers after the vocals end. It’s not just anyone who thing to write brass parts like that. The album works well from front-to-back as well. It has stand-out songs, but they never break the mood and neither do the weaker songs–though, wait, are there any weaker songs? I’m not remembering any…

    The National – Fake Empires (mp3)

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  4. Candie Payne – I Wish I Could Have Loved You More (original post)
    I’m still surprised when I hear this album. Somehow someone found a brilliant, unreleased gem of a 1966 album (uncommon, as most of the albums in those days were a couple singles and a fair share of filler), added some heavier drums and released it in 2007 (only the U.K. so far). Okay, that’s not the real story, but, as a person that loves and grew up on much of the music that’s called “oldies”, it’s nice to hear something that give me that kind of joy in production and pop songwriting. Candie’s voice gradually reveals itself to be a strength of the songs as well. I know of no other album this year or ever that when I heard some of it, made me buy the import copy and when I realized that what I’d bought was the import single of the same name, go out and buy another import copy, this time of the full album.

    Candie Payne – By Tomorrow (mp3)

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  5. Morning Benders – Boarded Doors (EP)
    This band has been showing quite a bit of growth. (Having heard some of their yet-to-be-recorded songs surely is some influence as well.) Their brand of heartfelt-but-not-too-wimpy indie pop is informed by decades of pop–they’ve covered Phil Spector (the Ronettes) and Roy Orbinson and sound great next to such acts in a mix tape. Frontman Chris Chu’s voice in uncommon in it’s effortless range and purity. This, their second EP, is a good step up from their previous Loose Change in terms of recording quality and songwriting. I’m really looking forward to their full-length.

    Morning Benders – Boarded Doors (mp3s)

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  6. Kanye West – Graduation (original post)
    While this isn’t my favorite Kanye album so far (that would be Late Registration), this album is a mostly really good combination of good production and sometimes meaningful lyrics, save the annoying two-fer of “Barry Bonds” and “Drunk and Hot Girls”. To all the hip hop purists, I’d like to note I’m not saying this is the best hip hop album of the year. It’s probably better categorized in my rather-indie-centric world as a good pop record that happens to have rapping and big beats.

    Kanye West – Everything I Am (mp3)

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  7. Jens Lekman – Night Falls over Kortedala
    I realized I hadn’t even posted about this album probably because of course Jens will put together a great album. I’m a Jens fan. I’ve liked his quirky but thoroughly catchy and over-the-top pop pretty much from the beginning. When I got Night Falls I emailed a friend to say something like “Yup, Jens is still the king of over-the-top Swedish pop.” I’d already heard the album’s best effort, “Opposite of Hallelujah”, so I unfortunately didn’t have the surprise of hearing that song for the first time in the album’s context.

    Jens Lekman – Your Arms Around Me (mp3)

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  8. Kings of Leon – Because of the Times (original post)
    I’m not going to be able to issue a big list of why this album is good intellectually or why this is good art (though, that’s not to say someone else couldn’t), but I just like listening to this album. It spent a huge portion of the year–months–in my car’s 6-disc CD changer and despite a rotating cast of other albums to choose from, I kept coming back to this one anyhow.

    Kings of Leon – Knocked Up (mp3)

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  9. On No! Oh My! – Between the Devil and the Sea (EP)
    With just 5 songs, just over 15 minutes of music, this EP was a dark horse. I was doing my last listens-through of various 2007 releases and I had a “wait, this is really good!” moment. I liked their debut album (buying the pre-order CD-r version, in fact) but it was inconsistent. This is a step up in both consistency of songwriting and loveliness of melodies. The end result is just a really fun EP of quirky pop songs.

    Oh No! Oh My! – The Party Punch (mp3)

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  10. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha (original post)
    Andrew Bird is extremely talented but–I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again–talent doesn’t necessarily make good music. Talent certainly helps the live show a ton, but in an album it’s just one part along with songwriting, production, orchestration and so on. I’m going to state this simply: I don’t think this is a complete album. “Plasticities”, “Simple X”, “Scythian Empires”, “Yawny At The Apocalypse” are four great songs that hold this album up among three other good songs (“Fiery Crash”, “Heretics”, “Dark Matter”) and a handful of average-to-boring ones. Still, those four songs are great and make this album well-worth the listen and deserving of its place on this list.

    Andrew Bird – Plasticities (mp3)

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  11. Benni Hemm Hemm – Kajak (original post)
    Benni Hemm Hemm somehow does the beautiful instrumentation and dynamic builds of post rock while still having concrete, and often soft, songs in there, like a Sigur Ros that has Reindeer Section sharing the stage some of the time. The end result is beautiful songs that pulls on you in many different ways.

    Benni Hemm Hemm – Brekkan (mp3)

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  12. John Vanderslice – Emerald City
    John Vanderslice is the man. But besides that point, he also writes really good songs and is one of the best working producers today. Recorded with a full band for the first time, this album has the most cohesive feel of any of his. JV has set a really high standard with his last two albums, Pixel Revolt and Cellar Door (both in my best-of lists for their years) and while I feel this isn’t quite up to that standard, if I take a wider view, this is still a very solid album.

    John Vanderslice – Numbered Lithograph (mp3)

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(There are more releases that I wanted to include here. I might need to do an “honorable mentions” post later in the week!)

Four releases that would have made the list but were included in previous lists (in alphabetical order):

  • David Bazan Fewer Moving Parts
  • Bishop Allen Month EPs/ the Broken String[2]
  • Elvis Perkins Ash Wednesday
  • Fionn Regan End of History

Voted most likely to have me kicking myself for not putting it on this best list once I have enough time to sit down and really listen to it:

  • The Lightning Bug Situation – A Leaf; a Stream (original post)
    This is a soft, tender, affecting and gorgeous album, but with all the found-sound and field-recording-type spoken sampled, I don’t think it has really had a chance to fully sink in. I’m sure there are a few albums from this year that will grow in my estimation after in the next weeks, months, years, decades, but if I had to pick one that I was most sure would, I’d say it’s this one.

    the Lightning Bug Situation – Message to Myself After Franny was Born (mp3)

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[1] This list isn’t the best albums on a global level, just on my personal level. I say “of 2007″ but really it’s “of 2007 when considered in mid-December” and I’m sure if I’d made the same list a month (or even a week) ago or a month (/week) from now, it’d be different. While I try to consider albums fairly subjectively, “best” is also not really on an absolute scale as my expectations of an album effect how I rank them. If I thought an album would be amazing and it’s merely really good it might rank much lower than an album that I thought would be mediocre or bad or didn’t have any expectations of at all and is equivalently really good.

[2] Let’s be honest with ourselves, two new songs doesn’t really make it that much different. And, while we’re really being honest with ourselves, the Month recordings are as good or better than the Broken String ones.

My what a box set: Magnolia Electric Co Soujourner, mp3s, tour dates

August 22nd, 2007

Magnolia Electric Co. is Jason Molina. Of course there’s other people in the band, but the “creative force”/ songwriter/ singer/ whatever else is Molina. Similarly, previously Songs: Ohia was Molina.

A couple weeks ago they released the Sojourner box set, consisting of 4 CDs (3 album-lengths and 1 EP), 1 DVD, a medallion, a nice wooden box and various other things and I picked it up at my first chance. It’s not quite the six albums we were promised, but it’s pretty impressive.

Let’s get the non-music out of the way: the medallion is just silly. Who needs a medallion? But as far as gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one. The DVD is a fairly interesting tour documentary, though there are many good tour docs out there (the Beulah and Death Cab ones being among the best).

Now for the music. Each disc has its own title. Nashville Moon is the most straight-forward one and it’s a full-band record. Sound-wise, it’s fairly similar to the last few Magnolia Electric Co albums. Shohola is solo, acoustic and pretty sparse. Sun Session is an EP-length disc worth of full band, but pretty subdued material. The Black Ram is possibly the most varied disc, mostly full band but with some pretty sparse material in there. The closer is even noisey, sparse and piano-based. It should also be noted that this isn’t all new material, with tracks like “Hammer Down” and “What Comes after the Blues” being released previously; it should also be noted the versions of these songs that appear here are quite different than the previously-released versions.

Overall, there’s some really great material in here. Shohola is immediately the centerpiece for me. I really like Molina’s solo, sparse stuff and even among that, this is a pretty amazing disc. Nashville Moon took a while longer to sink in but there’s some great songs on this disc and the material on the disc that I don’t love is still good. The Sun Session is short but really lovely. Black Ram is perhaps the only disc that I haven’t absorbed yet. I’m not sure what to make of it yet. There’s some pretty good and straightforward stuff but there’s some more out-there stuff too. The jury’s still out on that disc.

I raved previously about “Shiloh Temple Bell” and I was holding back. I really think this is one of the best songs Molina’s recorded and he’s both prolific and very good at songwriting. Perhaps if you don’t like the spare acoustic stuff, you won’t hear the genius in this, but if you don’t like the spare acoustic stuff what are you doing reading this blog? Here’s some of what I said about it last week:

When I first heard this track I almost forgot where I was, that I was driving–I needed to hear this song more and I wanted to hear it without interruption at all: just go home, shut my door, shut my eyes and listen to it on repeat. Jason Molina has written some really amazing songs, but there’s something about this one–every note, every word, every warble in his voice builds and makes it better. The melody during the chorus and the lyrics throughout are so perfectly melancholy.

Magnolia Electric Co – Shiloh Temple Bell (mp3 removed at request of label)

“No Moon on the Water” is one of about a thousand songs on the set that mentions the moon, as others have noted. This is an dark, aggressive rocker; it almost feels out of control in parts. I love simmering aggression underneath Molina’s warbling vocals about depression. (I just found out that probably a different version of this song came out as a promo 7″ a few years back.

Magnolia Electric Co – No Moon on the Water (mp3 removed at request of label)

“Texas 71″ starts and continues slowly, with a very slow fade in. With a organ leading the way and really nice pedal steel floating all over the place, there’s still plenty of space for Molina’s great vocals and melody.

Magnolia Electric Co – Texas 71 (mp3 removed at request of label)

You can buy the set from insound (link removed). Also be sure to check out their extensive free live archive in their site.

The almost continuous Magnolia Electric Co tour stops in the City in a couple weeks:

9/5 Magnolia Electric Co. w/ Golden Boots, The Dying Californian @ Bottom of the Hill, 9pm, $12, a/a

Check out full tour dates after the jump.

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