Five pop albums for classical music lovers
My friend Amy told me of a great idea she came up with when I ran into her the other day in downtown Amherst. Outside the audio-visual room at the Jones Library (Amherst's public library), where among other things, she purchases the classical CDs, Amy has hung a sheet of paper listing her choices for the most transporting classical selections, and allowing others to add theirs. Old-fashioned technology combined with modern-day interactivity — I love it! Now, wise guy that I am, I threatened that I would add my favorite all-out rock albums to the list, just to shake things up. But naaaah...why not instead write a blog post recommending some modern rock CDs that might convince skeptical classical fans that there's some pretty fine music being made on the other side of the tracks?
So here it is, not comprehensive, and not even really a list of "the best" or "my favorites." Neither do they sound anything like mainstream classical music. Rather, I'm recommending some rock and pop albums that, with their scrupulous attention to musical detail, excellence of execution, vividness of imagination and overall scope and impact can hold their own with the best classical music now being written and performed. And like Amy's list at the Jones, my choices are just the start. I know there are gaping holes, especially in African-American music. So, please add your choices too!
Sufjan Stevens: "The Age of Adz." Michigan native and standard-bearer for Brooklyn indie pop, Sufjan Stevens became known in the early 'oughts for mostly DIY albums that combined folksy strumming and soft crooning with ambitious lyrical and compositional concepts. After a few years' break, Sufjan came back in 2010 with something very different: plugged-in, wide-ranging, full-throated, with swaths and shards of synthesized sound evoking the disturbing, vision-haunted paintings of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. Highlights: The title selection, whose explosive sounds and exalted tone are especially awe-inspiring after the relatively gentle first two tracks, and the concluding 23-minute suite called "Impossible Soul," one of the best things of its kind in pop since side two of "Abbey Road." Take it from someone who listened to it almost every day for weeks on end: it holds up to repeated hearings, revealing something new each time. After this CD, any list of important American composers that doesn't include Stevens needs to be reconsidered. (You should be warned that Royal Robertson's paintings, several of which are reproduced in the booklet, are filled with vile and violent misogynist words and images.)
tUnE-yArDs: "WHOKILL." I've been touting the music of Smith alum Merrill Garbus so long and so hard, she should put me on payroll. Actually, just kidding, for turning you on to this CD is nothing but a pleasure. Merrill's musical m.o. is to use digital looping technology to record her voice, electric ukulele and percussion, then selectively play them back behind her live performance, all before your very eyes! OK, that's the "how" of tUnE-yArDs, Merrill's current project. It's the "what" that counts, and her "what" consists of gripping musical ideas, trenchant lyrics, and a voice of fabulous power, range and dexterity. While her extremely lo-fi debut release, "BiRd-BrAiNs" was a real out-of-left-field treat (and yes, I also find the orthography to be annoying), she really sweated the details for the next one in order to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Boy, did she ever! More than any other recent CD, I point to "WHOKILL" as an example of the amazing stuff these smart, crazy kids are doing today. Highlights: "My Country," "Gangsta." I'm going to keep hounding you until you listen, so you might as well give in now.
Björk: "Volta." Hey, this list's gotta have something by the Icelandic fairy-godmother of Merill Garbus, Annie "St. Vincent" Clark, Shara "My Brightest Diamond" Worden and the other fabulous femmes of indie pop. Like other great composers past and present, Björk hasn't just written lots of good music, she's created a virtual world, with its own flora, fauna and soundtrack. While some critics were all "haven't we heard it before?" about this 2008 CD, I beg to differ. I think it's her most varied and most consistently inspired collection, thanks in large part to a production team led by rapper/producer Timbaland, and a sound palette ranging from crunchy beats to foghorns to African kora. Highlight: "Dull Flame of Desire," with words of 19th-century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev done up as a stunning duet for Björk and guest vocalist Antony Hegarty over a repeating, cresendoing chord pattern. For all the world, it reminds me of 17th-century "grounds" by composers like Claudio Monteverdi (e.g., "Pur ti miro" from L'incoronazione di Poppea ) and Henry Purcell (e.g., "When I am laid in earth" from Dido and Aeneas ).
Antony and the Johnsons: "The Crying Light." Speaking of Antony Hegarty, the transgendered English singer and composer: If you haven't heard his indescribable voice and exquisite music, your life is not complete. I make no bones about including him on the list of great divas of song, including Maria Callas, Mabel Mercer, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday. Plus, he writes his own haunting, ardent, uplifting songs, filled with love, hurt, loss and redemption. Why, Antony is so cool, he's even been fawned over by Terry Gross on Fresh Air! Still skeptical? Oh go ahead; it won't bite. In fact, you might find that it tickles, moves and enthralls. Highlights: "Another World," "Aeon."
Of Montreal: "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?" On the other hand, this CD's got plenty of bite, so tread cautiously — but it's worth the risk. The brainchild of a widly inventive, inventively wild mad pop genius named Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal has gone back-and-forth between multi-piece and one-man band; this iteration is mostly of the latter persuasion. Basically a break-up album, "Hissing Fauna" is filled with rage, reflection, self-pity, reinvention, and some of the poppingest, danciest, who-knows-what's-going-to-happen-next-but-I-can't-wait-to-find-out sounds this side of Prince, Frank Zappa and Georg Philipp Telemann. Highlights: "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," "We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling." The amount of creativity and the level of detail on this album is absolutely incredible. Yeah, I know it's way out there. But if this Bach-loving, Brahms-savoring classical music maven can get off on it, so can you!
Your additions are welcome.