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The Best Songs of 2010: #5: “The High Road” by Broken Bells

25 Dec

And the funny numbers continue

Merry Christmas to all those celebrating today. Enjoy the festivities as I succumb to the classic Jewish Christmas stereotype and go see Tron and eat Japanese/Korean food. Also, to both perpetuate and feel deeper into the stereotype, at viewing the $18 per ticket charge for the Tron 3D IMAX Experience, I nearly went into shock. This until I realized that the purpose of movie theaters is to gradually raise prices on tickets. Seriously, no other business can get away with doing that. $18. They say it is a 3D IMAX experience. I am paying an extra $8 for a slightly larger screen and uncomfortable glasses?

Anyway, my family bought five tickets and we are seeing the movie tomorrow. Yeah, I admit it looks pretty awesome.

This has little to do with anything. As my gift to all of you on this festive holiday I will shut up and just get to #5 on our countdown.

Song: “The High Road”

Band: Broken Bells

Left - James Mercer (The Shins) Right - Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse)

At the beginning of The Music Court’s “Best Songs of 2010” countdown I previewed the list by featuring a special #11 song (“Tighten Up” by The Black Keys). Assisting the Black Keys in the production of this song was Brian Burton (Danger Mouse). I said in the post that he would play a prominent role in our countdown. Yesterday, the Gorillaz were highlighted for their recent release “Stylo,” and while Danger Mouse had nothing to do with the production of the new album Plastic Beach on which the song appeared, he did produce their second album Demon Days back in 2005. It’s a small but interesting side note.

So we jump to today’s post and the #5 song on our countdown is “The High Road” written and produced by Broken Bells, a collaboration between Danger Mouse and James Mercer of The Shins. As we can clearly see, Danger Mouse has cut himself a nice slice of the modern good music pie. This 33-year-old White Plains, NY, native has risen to music success through his production of albums by such artists as Gnarls Barkley and Jeff Beck. He even will be releasing a new album with U2 in early 2011. Danger Mouse is a rising force in genres like Alternative Rock, Hip Hop, Electronica and Indie.

His work with James Mercer has produced a very successful eponymous first release that will spawn a follow up (because of their initial success most likely). The title track “The High Road” is a piece representative of the type of work that these two musicians do together.

Above is the song being performed on the Late Show. The synthesizer opening is freakishly reminiscent of old-school video game sounds. It is also awesome. What a way to introduce a song. It gives it an immediate electronic feel that entraps the listener with its oddness. The drummer is Danger Mouse and he levels out the song with a solid beat until Mercer and the rest of the band spin it into rock. It flows perfectly and the simple chord structure blends with Mercer’s voice. As Mercer’s voice travels up an octave the listener is introduced to some beautiful choral harmonies.

At this point you want to hear the electronica and rock mix and they sure do in a chorus that is both melodic and electronic. It is like the best of both worlds. Besides the fact that this song is just simply catchy and well done, this is why it finds its way onto our list. It successfully blends two different genres of music effortlessly. It is so impressive. It may have been hard to find, but Broken Bells found and mastered the high road.

The Best Songs of 2010: #6: “Stylo” by Gorillaz

24 Dec

By far the best number picture I have posted thus far

When I mention Gorillaz what do you think of? For those who are more unfamiliar with the band, the popular thought may be that they are the group that is not real. They are cartoon characters, right? Very successful cartoon characters.

Since being created by Damon Albarn, who is also the frontman for Blur, and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, this “virtual band” proved quickly that The Archies were not the only cartoon characters capable of singing and playing instruments. I would venture to say that 2D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs, are the best animated band to ever play music. It helps that their eponymous debut album sold seven million copies, a Guinness Book record for a virtual band.

But, that was a long time ago. Just this past year Gorillaz released their third studio album Plastic Beach. The albums first single “Stylo” peaked at the 24th spot on the Billboard Alternative Chart. Here at the Music Court it gets better treatment.

Song: “Stylo”

Band: Gorillaz

Gorillaz Broin' Out

“Stylo” was released as a single in January 2010. And, in typical Gorillaz fashion, it features guest star vocals and a cameo in the semi-animated video. One must understand that Gorillaz music is more so a work of art. What I mean by that is you must consider everything before judging the song. In this case, you must watch the video in coordination with the song in order to get a true picture of the song. So before I go into analyzing it I will include the video below.

The song begins with a beat. It’s a funky line that sets the scene well. This hip-hop, alternative dance beat repeats throughout the song. A car’s engine is heard while a car accelerates at the viewer in the video. I love how Mos Def‘s initial rap coincides with the police officer and his cop car. The Stylo car is going to pass at a high speed and he is going to pursue. The rap falls at a great time because it is actually being spit through the police radio (notice the thumping speaker at around 20 seconds). Gorillaz often do an exceptional job combining visual and auditory stimulants that excite and please the listener. Like I implied above, listening to a Gorillaz song and watching any released visual material is like watching a short film. Art and music are combined effortlessly.

The guest vocal is done by Bobby Womack. That’s right, the renowned soul singer/songwriter. He was convinced by his daughter to do the collaboration because she was a fan of Gorillaz. Womack told Rolling Stone that he was unsure why they wanted him. His daughter said that Womack was “hip to them” and he went for it. At the studio, Womack was told to sing whatever came to mind during the recording. So, let’s set the scene. Accomplished songwriter comes into studio and is basically told to do vocal improv. Womack did just that and became so passionate that he actually started to pass out. He is a diabetic. He was fine and the song received a strong vocal addition.

The best part of the song is the best part of the video. It is very well why this song made it onto the countdown. Bruce Willis, traveling in a red 1968 Chevrolet El Camino, begins to shoot at the animated characters as Bobby Womack has a momentary explosion and does a pure rock n’ roll scream. The end of the song and video shows Willis running the other car off the road. The car dives into the water and turns into a whale with tail lights. And you are left saying…wow…that was awesome, both the song and video.

The Best Songs of 2010: #7: “Flash Delirium” by MGMT

23 Dec

The story of MGMT is interesting. “Kids” is perhaps their best known piece and it is a six-minute synthpop classic with small elements of psychedelia. MGMT’s brand of synth music in this song does come dangerously close to modern psychedelic music, but it falls short and therefore I cannot consider the 2008 song a psychedelic piece. Two years later, though, MGMT released Congratulations (April, 2010) and the first single from the album was nothing like “Kids.” Instead it delved deeper in the psychedelic sound that, according to lead men Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, was what they wanted to do with this album. It is the #7 song on our countdown.

I mention this because MGMT to me was simply another band exploring synthpop which has gained a strong listening base as a sub-mainstream genre. While “Kids” was catchy, I gave it one quick listen to affirm my theory and then went on to better pieces of music. But, “Flash Delirium” is different. I will tell you why below.

Song: “Flash Delirium”

Band: MGMT

“Flash Delirium” is no where close to “Kids.” One can spot the differences right away. “Kids” depends solely on a hook to provide the song’s structure and meaning. Without that one infectious part, there is no “Kids.” Contrastingly, “Flash Delirium” has no initial hook. The song begins with a drum-driven verse that erupts into this temporary rock insanity and then falls back into the verse that adds a synth into the background. But, the synth is not the short and catch “Kids” synth. It is deeper. The noise hangs on like a lingering smell.

Then the pre-chorus hits you with a wall of sound that just comes out of nowhere. Suddenly you are being hit by an orchestral sound before the chorus (or what seems like the chorus) hits you with this Bowie-like “Ashes to Ashes” segment. Then a sing-a-long and a flute. You stop and think to yourself, what the hell is going on? And that is when I first realized that this is a good piece of psychedelic music. It makes you question normal music conventions. Hence why I am hesitant calling the chorus a chorus. The song’s structure is lacking. It falls into a void that lacks gravity. All sound is floating and hitting you at random times. And that is only after two minutes.

Then all hell breaks loose. More sounds are added and the song turns to a rock base with vocal repetition. The end of the song is an eruption. There is anger and then animal noises. You are left bemused and intrigued.

That is what happens with the video as well. I wanted to give you my song analysis before I posted the video. The video is genius. It is confusing, wacky, disoriented, sardonic and even possibly satiric. Basically, one of our main characters (who seem to be coming back from war) is hiding a hole in his throat, which he reveals after the flute (it’s like snake charming). There is something inside of his opening that sings and is then pulled out and inserted into this machine in an odd libidinous ceremony. The family in the video consists of hippies and war-mongers and crazy looking old ladies. The end of the video (which correlates with the volcano of sound at the end) is a string of psychedelic images that “mind rape” you. Animal noises coincide with darkness. Something really bad just happened. The listener/viewer is left shaking their head. Boy is that a good song! But it is unconventional. Hence why it has not received a lot of attention (besides top 10 lists). This is not close to “Kids.” This one is for the adults.



The Best Songs of 2010: #8: “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National

22 Dec

I'm getting something

I shook the 8-ball and out of the mysterious liquid realm came a suggestion to pick “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National as the eighth song on our Top 11 list. All hail the mighty 8-ball. Putting aside my idolatry for the black circle of broad responses, I believe the 8-ball made the correct choice. Is it odd that I had previously written “Bloodbuzz Ohio” in as the number eight song of the year?

Song: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

Band: The National

When The National released High Violet in May of 2010 something clicked with the national public. Prior to its release, this 11-year-old Indie rock band, led by baritone Matt Berninger, had released four previous albums. Boxer, released in 2007, charted highest in Finland, reaching the 23rd spot. The National swam in the sea of under appreciation for talented bands releasing good material. But, after High Violet hit, led by an excellent full-album performance highlighted by the song we are featuring today, people started taking notice. The song charted practically everywhere, reaching the #3 spot in the United States (where The National only hit #68 with Boxer). To this date, High Violet has sold 400,000 copies worldwide and has gone silver in the UK and gold in Ireland. 11 tracks for an 11 year history. The band finally now gets to experience some deserved recognition.

The National formed in Cincinnati. Berninger’s croon and lyric are the staples that hold the band together. But, the band also consists of two sets of brothers, the Dessners and Devendorfs, who create the band’s wonderful instrumentation. Padma Newsome, from The Clogs, often contributes keyboards and strings (which she does for “Bloodbuzz Ohio” which we will begin to discuss…right now!)

Let me share a brief preface before you settle into the piece. The song is a tenebrous masterpiece, melancholic in voice, video and music. The lyric delves into the topic of traveling back home and it certainly opens a fresh wound that bleeds out slowly onto the listener.

The song is immediately depressing. The charcoal video is paired with Berninger’s gloomy voice, dark but level, and a solemn loneliness that immediately presents itself after the drummed opening. The squirming repetition is almost as uncomfortable as Berninger’s drunkenness throughout the video. But, please don’t take that the wrong way. Songs are occasionally supposed to move you out of your comfort song. If you listen to pure mainstream you never get the opportunity to experience different music. And this is exactly what “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is. It is representative of a band that may be slightly out of your normal listening zone. So expand it and taste something that nears on acerbic and austere, but still maintains a hook and melodic quality that draws you in.

The chorus is exceptional. It is capable of drawing incredible emotion out of you. I go back to repetition but I think this is where the true strength of the song lies. The lyrics are also repetitive. He repeats almost every line twice and maintains a few lyric openings like “I still owe money”  and “I rest my eyes.” Perhaps the best moment comes when the song lifts into harmony and Berninger sings that he is on a “blood buzz.” So, what is a blood buzz?

Like I said above, the song exposes traveling back to Ohio (where he grew up). The “blood” refers to his family, his literal blood. The buzz is that feeling you get when you go home. Notice how after he sings that he is on a “blood buzz” the instrumentation fights with two conflicting musical parts. In the background is a keyboard striking 4-5 high notes, tinged with optimism. But a repetitive brash and scratchy chord attempts to cover up the sweetness. This fight represents Berninger’s lyric and character in the video. When the lyric, video, voice and instrumentation all join together to struggle with the same concept that the song represents, well, that demonstrates musical experience and intelligence, two things that The National has a lot of.

The Best Songs of 2010: #9: “Infinite Arms” by Band of Horses

21 Dec

Who else cannot help but think of the haunting repetition of “number 9” in The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” when they look above at this route 9 photo. If that thought crossed your mind you are in the right place. We are moving on to the #9 song of the year.

Song: Infinite Arms

Band: Band of Horses

They just look like they are from Seattle. Oh, they are? Well, that was no surprise. I don’t say that as a negative at all. There is something about Seattle, Washington that breeds great bands. I pondered this unproven statistic once (even though it is practically proven in my mind). My conclusion? The coffee and the rain. It is an upper and a downer. The juxtaposition must engender beautiful musical concoctions. And while Infinite Arms (where the same-named track we are discussing appears) was mostly recorded in North Carolina, it certainly sounds like they carried some Seattle spirit with them.

The band released Infinite Arms in May to critical acclaim. It was the third album released by this Indie band. While Band of Horses euphonious style of vocal harmonies shined on their first release in 2006 (which featured “The Funeral”), I believe that this album highlighted a sense of band maturity. A big reason for this is that the band is finally whole. Lead vocalist Ben Bridwell and his band expanded to include guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. Keyboardist Ryan Monroe was made a permanent band member. The new members impact on the album was invaluable. They helped create the exceptional sound of the #9 song of the year.

Does the beginning of the song sound familiar? It is very similar to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” (I believe the opening chords for “Infinite Arms” are an F and Em7 while Bowie plays a Fmaj7 and an Em. Variations of F and E) The repetitive chords are then put in the background and Bridwell’s voice shines. His voice is passionate and he is able to control it. It does display a hint of western charm.

The band lives on vocal harmony. That is how they evoke their feelings. And, they have always done this well. But, by adding more instruments they have created an even more dynamic presence on stage. Now they pair more complex instrumentation with their harmonies. This provides a sound that hits you on multiple levels. This is why “Infinite Arms” works. The end of the song features the combination and it sounds like the puzzle pieces have been put together. It is form fitting. The song then fades beautifully.

I’d also like to highlight a specific lyric. As you know I am a sucker for great lyrics. That is my ultimate favorite. I am a word person.

“These mended bones
The storms approach
Ever so slowly
Out on the sea
There’s an animal below me
lack of control
Others came before me
Others to come, to come
When my thoughts drift to you”

If we presume that this song is about death and memory, Bridwell chooses an interesting way to frame the lyric. I do believe that it works. And the repetition throughout the song of “when my thoughts drift to you” is fantastic. The song is well deserving of the #9 title.

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