Sunday, April 27, 2014

24 Best Albums of 2013: #10 to #1

You can read the previous two parts of my Best Albums of 2013 list here. 

10. Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Ghost on Ghost is in some sense a continuation of the adult-alternative sound Sam Beam cultivated on his previous records The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean, but it also calls to mind the rawer, more acoustic work for which he first gained renown. Songs like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” and “Lovers’ Revolution” are vibrant and passionate, full of detail without feeling overcrowded. Others, such as “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” so perfectly evoke the atmosphere and intimacy of a late-night jazz club that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke rising from ashtrays.

9. Beyoncé Beyoncé
I tend to like and admire Beyonce’s music rather than actively love it; individual songs have grabbed me in the past, but her records have been too uneven as a whole. Therefore, I was surprised to find that this record, which Beyonce refreshingly declared should be listened to as an album and not as an iTunes playlist, was a remarkably cohesive and rewarding work. Even in its lesser moments, Beyonce is still exciting and engaging.

8. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
The Worse Things Get is Neko Case’s most challenging record – it forces the listener to reconsider their idea of who Case is and the music she makes. Those expecting an album’s worth of fist-pumping anthems will be disappointed. Those who know the full extent of Case’s range will find an album full of piercing insights and irresistible lyrical collages.

7. London Grammar – If You Wait
I hadn’t heard of London Grammar until I read a glowing review of If You Wait on a pop culture website I greatly respect, so I had high expectations of the band’s debut, and wasn’t disappointed. London Grammar – Dot Major, Hannah Reid and Dan Rothman – have crafted an album that stands among such records as Stars’ Set Yourself On Fire as a chronicle of what one article about the band called the “quarter-life crisis.” If You Wait is more accomplished than its peers, however, and its best songs, including “Strong” and the astonishing “Wasting My Young Years,” achieve a remarkable sort of timelessness.

6. Haim – Days Are Gone
There’s no doubt that Haim owes a substantial debt to Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles among others, but Days Are Gone manages to wear its influences on its sleeves without coming across as mere pastiche. It's impossible to know whether we'll be talking about Days Are Gone a year from now, but if “Falling,” the sophisticated kiss-off “Honey & I” and the impeccable pop of “Don’t Save Me” are any indication, we’ll still be talking about Haim.

Head below the fold for albums #5 to #1. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

24 Best Albums of 2013: #20 to #11

This is the second part of my Best Albums of 2013 list. The first part, containing albums #24 to #21, can be read here. 

20. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
I hadn’t paid any attention at all to Chvrches before The Bones of What You Believe was released, so the album took me somewhat by surprise; I went in expecting little more than catchy dance-pop and found a resonant and frequently moving record instead. Lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry, who could be Emily Haines’ kid sister, brings unexpected darkness and depth to the exhilarating rush of “We Sink” and “The Mother We Share.”

19. Kanye West – Yeezus
Yeezus is not the easiest album to love, or even like; indeed, the most preferable way of listening may be to hold it at arms’ length. The only real way to listen to this record, however, is to engage with it on its own terms, and it’s then that you realize how emotional, irreverent, startling, contradictory, bizarre and deeply personal Yeezus is.

18. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Despite Random Access Memories’ technology-inspired title and its creators’ strict adherence to anonymity (as the controversy over a helmetless photo of Daft Punk on Twitter last year illustrates), it’s actually one of the most personable records released last year, with a willingness to experiment and an excellent lineup of collaborators. 

17. Lorde – Pure Heroine
I wouldn’t go so far as to label Pure Heroine as “anti-pop” (by which I mean the opposite of pop, not a criticism of the genre), but its relatively short length, unfussy arrangements and overall sense of restraint made Lorde’s debut a change of pace from the occasionally overindulgent records put out by many Top 40 artists this year.

16. She & Him – Volume 3
With Volume 3, Zooey Deschanel once again proves her status as one of the most underrated songwriters working in indie pop today. The originals on Volume 3, along with a few well-chosen covers (including a poignant rendition of "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me"), show a further refinement of the blend of '60s pop and country that has always characterized Deschanel and M. Ward's work. Deschanel's enviable gift for breezy yet insightful lyrics and earworm choruses is on full display in such highlights as "Turn to White," "Something's Haunting You" and the rollicking "I Could've Been Your Girl."

Head below the fold for albums #15 to #11. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best 24 Albums of 2013: #24 to #21

2013 was an exceptional year for music – not just for one or two genres, but for music, period. So many artists released so many great records that it became impossible to listen to everything, and what one listened to largely depended on one’s own personal tastes. I spent most of the year with indie-rock and -pop records while indulging a long-time passion for folk music and Americana. There are quite a few albums I know I missed, and while I feel some regret that I didn't get to them, well, that's what 2014 is for.

Honourable Mentions:
Federal Lights - We Were Found in the Fog
Josh Ritter - The Beast in Its Tracks
Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Nataly Dawn - How I Knew Her
Royal Canoe - Today We're Believers

24. Diane Birch - Speak a Little Louder
Diane Birch’s first album Bible Belt was widely acclaimed as not only one of the most assured debuts of 2009 but also for the way Birch incorporated influences from the ‘70s singer-songwriter pop of Carly Simon and Carole King into her own fully-formed aesthetic. Four years later, Birch has returned with Speak a Little Louder, a record still grounded in the music of her debut while owing more of a debt to Elton John and Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush. This stylistic shift, to her credit, doesn’t sound like selling out – rather, it feels like a natural evolution from one of this decade’s most promising young artists.

23. Brendan Canning – You Gots 2 Chill
The first word that comes to mind when I think of You Gots 2 Chill is ‘mesmerizing.’ Brendan Canning has constructed an intricate record that still feels organic, as the oddly danceable "However Long" and the quiet intimacy of "Late Night Stars" aptly demonstrate. Easy to dismiss as ‘bedroom music’, You Gots 2 Chill becomes more compelling with each listen.

22. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
Thankfully, despite its lengthy and complex origin and development, Sky Ferreira’s debut was worth the wait. The best songs on Night Time, My Time are remarkably perceptive; they’re potent distillations of the messiness within the human mind and heart.

21. Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft 
Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs is one of American folk music’s best-kept secrets. She’s been releasing consistently strong records over the past decade – her last two were the sublime July Flame (#7 on my 2010 best-of list) and the refreshingly unsentimental children’s record Tumble Bee  with increasing critical and commercial success. Warp and Weft, her eighth album, is one of her most eclectic releases yet, ranging from the Americana of “Sun Song” and “Shape Shifter” to the haunting, electric guitar-driven lamentation “Dorothy of the Island.” All in all, an excellent addition to Veirs’ already impressive discography.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Best Songs of 2013: #15 to #1

The first part of this list, which includes songs #25-#16, can be read here. 

15. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
I’m not sure if “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the instant classic some say it is; the song works best as part of Nothing Was the Same’s overall emotional arc, where it has a proper fadeout instead of the single version's strangely abrupt ending. There's no denying Drake's suaveness and charm, though, or how the song immediately makes you want to dance. 

14. Lana Del Rey – “Young and Beautiful”
It's probably for the best that "Young and Beautiful" was only briefly featured in Baz Luhrmann's mixed-bag adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Lana Del Rey's song deserves to heard separate from the film it was written for - a sweeping ballad showcasing Del Rey's nuanced vocals. Free of the heaviness that occasionally dragged down Born to Die, “Young and Beautiful” shows why listeners were drawn to Del Rey’s music in the first place. 

13. Matt Pond – “Love to Get Used”
The first time I heard “Love to Get Used,” I honestly assumed Matt Pond was Canadian – the opening lines mention Athabasca, but more than that, I couldn’t figure out why this song wasn’t getting more exposure. Since then, I’ve learned that Pond hails from New York and has been active for over a decade as the frontman of the indie rock band Matt Pond PA, but that doesn’t dampen the song’s impact. “Love to Get Used” feels effortlessly cool, boasts a killer chorus, is subtle but tuneful, and has a perfect bridge - and yet it's the sum of all these parts. 

12. She & Him – “Turn to White”
Zooey Deschanel has written many songs influenced by the music of the 1960s and ‘70s as a member of She & Him, but “Turn to White” is one of the few that feel like a genuine lost classic, gentle as a summer breeze with lyrics that are at once melancholy and upbeat. Deschanel's wistful delivery, along with M. Ward's stellar guitar work, make "Turn to White" one of the duo's finest compositions to date. 

11. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
The visuals associated with a song have always had some degree of impact on the song itself. However, since the birth of YouTube in 2005, visuals have become so inextricably linked with music that a video frequently draws more attention than the song itself. If there was ever a song that deserved to be heard on its own, outside the context of its accompanying music video, it's "Wrecking Ball." The song's emotions and imagery may not be particularly subtle, but there's enough grit and humanity in Cyrus' voice to separate "Wrecking Ball" from its bombastic, over-processed kin. 

Head below the fold for #10 to #1. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Best Songs of 2013: #25 to #16

2013 was full of great songs, so many that I decided to expand my list to include twenty-five tracks this year. I've also included some honourable mentions, as well as a 'Special Jury Prize' given to a song that didn't quite make it into the Top 25 but deserved more than just an honourable mention. Hope you enjoy.

Honourable Mentions

Special Jury Prize: Royal Canoe "Birthday"

25. Mariah Carey (ft. Miguel) – “#Beautiful”
Yes, that hashtag in the title is wholly unnecessary, and yes, Miguel is more than just a featured artist here. Still, “#Beautiful” might have been the most pleasant surprise of 2013: its opening guitar immediately recalls warm summer nights, and Mariah Carey and Miguel seem to actually be enjoying themselves, making the song feel like a genuine collaboration. Instead of hurling hooks at the listener, “#Beautiful” relies on the chemistry and charisma of its two vocalists, and is all the better for it.

24. The Darcys – “The River”
The opening notes of "The River" both draw the listener in and hint at ominous things lying ahead. What starts out as a straightforward rock song is elevated by its lyrics' eerie imagery, the song's haunting, almost primal rhythms and the growing desperation in Jason Couse's vocals. "Are you reaching out?" he calls, and as the other instruments rise to engulf his voice, we get the feeling he already knows the answer. 

23. Diane Birch – “Tell Me Tomorrow”
As with many great pop songs, “Tell Me Tomorrow” contains moments of pure euphoria – that chant of “hey! hey! hey!” was practically made to be shouted by festival crowds – but tempers, or perhaps counters, them with with a refreshing sense of weariness. Birch's stunning, soulful voice takes centre stage here, showing a range that extends beyond the '70s singer-songwriter pop of her earliest work. 

22. Lorde – “Royals”
When “Royals” first emerged, it felt a bit like a revelation due to its minimalist production and Lorde’s captivating, smoky voice. Months later, I'm still impressed by the song, mostly for the way it works effortlessly as both autobiography and anthem while avoiding the pitfalls of either genre. 

21. Laura Veirs – “Shape Shifter”
“Shape Shifter,” as with many songs from its parent album Warp and Weft, is as much about the joys of relationships as it is about their difficulties. “Winter’s on the way / I think we’re going to make it out / if we stick together now,” Veirs sings, accompanied by her own quiet but spellbinding guitar line, as Alex Guy's gorgeous violin weaves in and out with a warmth enough to melt the heart of even the coldest listener.

Head below the fold for #20-#16.

Monday, September 2, 2013

'100 Masters' at the Winnipeg Art Gallery: A Retrospective

The 100 Masters exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery ended today. As a sort of commemoration of what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the city's cultural scene this summer, I've put together a collection of a few works that particularly stood out for me, both for aesthetic and emotional reasons. '

(These are only a handful of the more than one hundred pieces featured in the exhibition, so I'm sure other people will have favourites that are entirely different from mine. Anyone who happens to come across this blog is free to leave a comment including some of their own favourites.)

Bertram Brooker, Sounds Assembling (1928)
Sounds Assembling's dynamic use of colour and lines almost seems like sensory overload at first, but once one gets accustomed to the work's unique aesthetics, the oddly luxurious hues of Brooker's work are quite inspiring. They give Sounds Assembling a depth that may not be immediately apparent for such an abstract piece of art. 

Ocean Limited, Alex Colville (1962)
As technically the last work in the second-to-last gallery of the exhibit, Colville's work felt like an encapsulation of the emotions many of the artists in the previous galleries had worked to convey and capture. There are so many brilliant details in Ocean Limited that contribute to its sense of palpable tension, from the half-still, half-moving field of grain to the three-part structure, all of which are brought out further by the juxtaposition of words in the painting's name.

Robert Harris, The Local Stars (1888)
The Local Stars perfectly captures a moment in time both entirely specific and remarkably universal. Having been in several choirs, both professional and amateur, over the years, I could identify the specific parts (musical and archetypal) played by each figure in Harris' work. More than that, though, I loved The Local Stars for its gentle humour -- that title practically demands to be used for a Garrison Keillor short story -- and keen observational eye. Harris originally planned for the male soloist to be comically hunched over his choir book; that the painter chose in the end to go with a more nuanced but still humorous pose demonstrates Harris' affection for these characters.

Lucius O'Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880)
There were many outstanding depictions of landscapes among the works in the 100 Masters exhibit, but few affected me like Sunrise on the Saguenay did. The towering, mist-wreathed cliffs and beautiful reflection of sun on water are the focal points of O'Brien's landscape, but the way each object in Sunrise seems suffused with light is what makes the painting truly come alive.

Michiel Sweerts, Self-Portrait with Skull (ca. 1661)
Self-Portrait with Skull was the work most prominently featured in the WAG's promotion for 100 Masters, so one could presume that the original painting itself might have lost some of its emotional resonance in the process. This was not the case. How Sweerts uses shadow and light to bring out the tragicomic elements of his composition - there's a staged, self-conscious aspect to the painting, but also a very real melancholy present - gives Self-Portrait with Skull an enduring power. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Best of Winnipeg Arts 2012-13 Season, Part Two: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

This is the second half of a look back at the best of Winnipeg’s 2012-13 arts season. The first post, which looked at the best classical music concerts in the city, can be read here.

As I noted in the first part of this series, Winnipeg is such a culturally-rich city that it's impossible to see everything - and, in rare cases, this doesn't apply to specific events, but to the kind of event you plan to go to. 

When I had the idea for these two posts back in January, I knew that one would probably be about  classical music, and I thought the other might be about theatre. It soon became clear, however, that I hadn't seen enough theatre, from enough companies, to make a comprehensive "best-of" list. I'd enjoyed the plays I'd seen at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, though, so I decided to create a retrospective of the plays at the RMTC's John Hirsch Mainstage and Tom Hendry Warehouse over the 2012-13 season. 

As this is a personal list looking at an individual theatre company, I've labeled each category as "Most Outstanding" instead of "Best". I've also put plays and musicals together under Most Outstanding Production, purely for convenience's sake. As well, Assassins and Ride the Cyclone: A Musical both had ensemble casts, so actors and actresses from those two plays have been included in the Supporting categories. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actress

5. Sarah Constible - Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Gone With the Wind) and Odysseus/Narcissa (The Penelopiad)
In Gone With the Wind, Sarah Constible fully embraced playwright Niki Landau's daring interpretation of notoriously flimsy Melanie Hamilton Wilkes and made her a fully-realized human being just as strong as her friend Scarlett. In The Penelopiad, Constible was one of the highlights of an all-female cast that took on male roles when required in Margaret Atwood's retelling of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Her performance as Odysseus was both an illuminating take on the character, and, when in disguise during the archery competition to win the hand of Odysseus' wife Penelope, a welcome source of comic relief. 

4. Lora Brovold - Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (A Few Good Men)
While Joanne Galloway was the lone female character in A Few Good Men's otherwise all-male cast, playwright Aaron Sorkin and actress Lora Brovold made it clear that Galloway was not simply present to provide an additional perspective on the play's events. Brovold's assured, intelligent and nuanced portrayal of Galloway made for one of the most captivating and memorable performances in what was an impressive start to RMTC's 2012-13 season. 

3. Rielle Braid - Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical) 
Of the six teenaged characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, blonde overachiever Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg may have felt the most familiar to audiences, and therefore perhaps the easiest, or most irresistible, to caricature. Rielle Braid and the musical's writers, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, certainly poked fun at the character's most Tracy Flick-like mannerisms (Ocean's solo number was an uptempo litany of her myriad accomplishments), and her interactions with The Amazing Karnack, the snarky fortune-telling machine that served as the musical's narrator, provided some of Ride the Cyclone's biggest laughs. However, Braid never lost sight of the genuine compassion just beneath Ocean's competitive outlook, which made the character's final decision as to the fates of her fellow choristers even more emotionally resonant. 

2. Kelly Sue Hudson - Constance Blackwood (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
If it's possible for musicals to have "breakout characters," I feel like Ride the Cyclone's would be Constance Blackwood, due largely in part to Kelly Sue Hudson's powerful performance. Constance, burdened with the title of "nicest girl in town", second fiddle to her supportive but driven friend Ocean, seemingly destined to stay in Uranium City for the rest of her life, was among Ride the Cyclone's most complex characters. Constance's number "Sugar Cloud", which showed off Hudson's incredible pipes, was a high point in a musical filled with memorable numbers and performances. Hudson greatly impressed me the first time I saw the musical with a theatre full of people in their 20s and 30s, but when I saw Ride the Cyclone again, this time with an older audience, I was able to further appreciate the subtlety and dignity Hudson brought to the imbued the role.

1. Miche Braden - Mammy (Gone With the Wind)
It's not every day that an actor or actress gets to do a previously one-dimensional character justice. Miche Braden's dignified, independent Mammy lived up to Niki Landau's thrillingly and refreshingly complex interpretation of the character. Mammy's opening scene with young Miss O'Hara set the tone for the character's powerful arc, and her speech prior to leaving Scarlett in Act III made more than one audience member's eyes fill with tears. Braden's performance may have been the most compelling indication of Gone With the Wind's success as an adaptation and as an individual piece of theatre. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actor

5. Steve Ross - Charles Guiteau (Assassins)
Steve Ross' portrayal of Charles Guiteau, Andrew Garfield's killer, was one of Assassins' most satisfying performances. In a musical where dialogue mattered as much as lyrics, Guiteau's constant, aggressive declarations of his own importance were genuinely hilarious, even as they hinted at the troubled soul within. This approach culminated in the number depicting Guiteau's death, in which the fervently religious man sang "I Am Going to the Lordy" as every muscle and fibre in his body pulled him both toward and away from the steps leading up to the scaffold where his noose waited. 

4. Kholby Wardell - Noel Gruber (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
As with several other characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, Noel Gruber - an artistic gay teenager who feels like an outcast in the society he lives in, here the rural wasteland of Uranium City, Saskatchewan - had many familiar characteristics, but these were traits that Kholby Wardell and the musical's writers took great pleasure in turning on their heads. His rousing cabaret-esque solo number, a fantasy about living as a prostitute named Monique in 19th-century France, brought down the house both nights, but Wardell also hit quieter notes that echoed Gruber's own development over the course of the musical. 

3. Elliott Loran - Ricky Potts (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
Ricky Potts was probably Ride the Cyclone's most ambitious character: a imaginative boy born with cystic fibrosis who, in the afterlife, is finally able to voice his dreams of being a "Space Age Bachelor Man." Ricky's gently self-deprecating nature was a pleasant surprise, and his love of comic books and video games appealed to the geeks in the audience; more than that, though, Loran masterfully conveyed Ricky's quiet realization that his newfound voice might not get to be heard by anyone in the land of the living. 

2. Graham Abbey - Sam Byck (Assassins)
Of all the assassins in Stephen Sondheim and John Weiden's musical, Sam Byck, played by Graham Abbey, was probably most representative of the darkly comedic mood which ran throughout the musical. Abbey's sarcastic rendition of "Tonight" from West Side Story was hysterically funny, as was his blubbering impersonation of Richard Nixon, the president Byck tried to assassinate by flying a plane into the White House. What made Abbey's performance truly stand out among a universally excellent ensemble cast, however, was his chilling speech about the distinctions we create between good and evil - and how these categories may be more fluid than one might want to admit. 

1. Paul Essiembre - Col. Nathan Jessep (A Few Good Men) and William Coles (Other People's Money)
Paul Essiembre's performance as the domineering, intimidating Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men alone would have earned him a place on this list. Essiembre's role as the more subdued middle manager William Coles in Other People's Money, however, demonstrated a impressive range that proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Coles, arguably the 'hero' of Jerry Sterner's script - although, in the world of Other People's Money, there may be no explicit good or bad, only context - was, personality-wise, worlds away from Jessup, but both men were grounded in a sense that their actions were ultimately for the best. 

Head below the break for the Most Outstanding Lead Actresses, Lead Actors and Productions.