Category Archives: music

Favorite Music of 2013


There was a time when I spent considerable energy seeking out great new music. The nearly simultaneous rise of algorithm-based advertising and MP3 blogs made for a powerful workflow. I would set aside hours plugging in bands and albums, listening to a few songs or a few seconds of Amazon’s recommendations, and have a fistful of great discoveries at the end. There were plenty of misses, but enough hits to make it all worthwhile.




In the age of algorithm-based internet radio, it’s even easier to find unknown gems. Somewhat paradoxically, it also makes it easier to learn about older music, tracing sounds back through influences of influences. Most of my favorites now are at least a few years old, and I’ve lost much interest in keeping up with new releases. Still, there’s something appealing about a year-end list, and here are six albums from 2013 that I loved.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Phoenix – Bankrupt

Lucius – Wildewoman

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Various – ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Soundtrack

Nine Earworms for October 2013

There is so much great new music these days from the likes of Lucius, The National and Phoenix. With the cooler weather and changing colors, it’s also a fine time to revisit some older stuff that still stands up. Here are nine songs I’ve been listening to these lately, and I hope you enjoy them, too.

  1. Lucius – Tempest
  2. Townes Van Zandt – When She Doesn’t Need Me
  3. Iron & Wine – Freedom Hangs Like Heaven
  4. The Strokes – Under the Cover of Darkness
  5. Phoenix – Entertainment
  6. Felice Brothers – Whiskey in My Whiskey
  7. Delta Spirit – The Flood
  8. The Rosewood Thieves – Honey, Stay Awhile
  9. The National – HumiliationOctober Earworms

My Interview With Frank Fairfield

I arrive at the Black Cat soon after the doors open. I’m here to see the opener, Frank Fairfield, rather than the headliner (Horse Feathers). In the corner of the bar, a man with a thick mustache and a wavy mop of hair stands behind a pool table, sinking balls by himself. It’s Frank, and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. I order a beer and walk over.

Me: Hi, Frank. Can I buy you a drink?
FRANK FAIRFIELD (softly): I’m not much of a drinker.
Me: Alright. Do you want to play a game?
FRANK: Sure, I’ll play. What’s your name?
Me: Brian.
(We shake hands.)
FRANK: Do we know each other?
Me: No, but I saw you perform in Golden Gate Park at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass last year.
FRANK: Well that’s on the other side of the country!
Me: I know, I’m a big fan!
(Frank stops, appearing somewhat touched.)
FRANK: Well, what do you want to play?
Me: How about 8 ball?
FRANK: Alright, what kind?
Me: Is there more than one kind? I don’t know.
(Frank mumbles something and racks the balls.)
FRANK: Would you like to do the honors?
Me: Sure, thank you.
(I break, but sink nothing. Emily walks up.)
Me: Frank, this is my friend, Emily. She’s a fiddler, too.
EMILY: Yeah, I played at their wedding.

Frank gets excited and they talk while we play. We’re evenly matched, neither of us particularly good. Frank is methodical in measuring his shots, and takes small leaps in response to near misses. The stage manager comes out and tells him that he’s starting in a few minutes. I offer to call the game a draw, but he insists we finish. I’m winning, but scratch on the 8 ball. We shake hands. He collects his long, rough coat, walks to the stage and gets ready to perform.

Frank Fairfield at the Black Cat
Washington, DC
November 15, 2012

Frank Fairfield – Going Down the River #2

Frank Fairfield – Those Brown Eyes

Frank Fairfield – Some Day You’ll Be Free

Frank Fairfield – The Dying Cowboy

Frank Fairfield – Rye Whiskey/Texas Farewell

Favorite Albums of 2011

As someone who rarely consumes music from some genres, I don’t feel justified in making a “top” list for 2011. The “favorite” appellation should give me latitude to feature those albums that I liked best, free from any obligation to consider music from genres that I don’t enjoy as much. My listening habits have skewed more folk in the last year or two, though I don’t think I’m pigeonholed just yet.

2011 was an interesting year, musically. Reflecting on the albums that came out, there were a few disappointments. Among others, Radiohead, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, tUnE-yArDs and Wilco released albums that weren’t nearly as gripping as their previous work. On the plus side, I got to see more live music than ever, including most musicians on this list. Here are my eight favorite albums. Enjoy!

  1. Frank Fairfield – Out on the Open West (Poor Old Lance)
  2. Tristen – Charlatans at the Garden Gate (Matchstick Murder)
  3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Minnesota, WI)
  4. Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings – The Harrow & The Harvest (Down Along the Dixie Line)
  5. Adele – 21 (Someone Like You)
  6. Beirut – The Rip Tide (Payne’s Bay)
  7. Tom Waits – Bad as Me (New Years’ Eve)
  8. Jolie Holland – Pint of Blood (Little Birds)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

This year, P and I took advantage of her west coast work trip to catch Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free music festival in the heart of San Francisco. We stayed with her college friend, Joe, and got to see some great performers, eat some tasty food, meet some new folks, unexpectedly run into old folks and walk a lot.

The lineup was great for any festival, let alone a free one, though the price of easy access was a massive crowd of people who seemed to prefer altering their minds with drugs rather than music. Not that I’m opposed to honoring a soulful rendition of “If the River Was Whiskey”, but I do prefer attentive listening. Due to crowds and transport logistics, we didn’t quite get to see everyone we wanted; Jolie Holland, AA Bondy, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn were a few victims of circumstance. We did get to see M Ward (good), Robert Plant (not so good), Robert Earl Keen (pretty good), The Felice Brothers (quite good) and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings (very good). The clear standout, though, was Frank Fairfield.

A cynic might suggest that Fairfield’s style and personality is an affectation or a schtick. The man looks and talks as if he stepped into the outhouse beside his southern Appalachian cabin in 1870 and stepped out 140 years later. From his clothes to his humility, there’s very little that seems modern about him. Seeing him live, it’s clear that he’s genuinely a man out of time.

Frank Fairfield

We were running late and were thrilled to discover him playing the smallest stage of the festival. Despite a decent crowd, we walked right up to the front row and got to watch him from about 20 feet away. He played with vigor and feeling, and the instant he stopped, he was bashful, awkward, almost autistic. He was also the most consummate musician I’ve ever seen, starting with the fiddle, then moving to the banjo, then to the guitar, then back to the banjo, then to the fiddle again. The speed of his banjo playing seemed supernatural, and he played with the fiddle so ardently that he barely had any horsehair left on his bow by the end of his song. When he was done, he took a couple of quick bows, picked up his three instruments and walked off the stage to really good applause. It was great to see people lined up to buy his newest album, Out on the Open West, from his wife, who P tried to convince to come to DC.

As a treat just for you, here’s “Chilly Winds”, with a little background chatter, recorded from Frank Fairfield’s set:
Frank Fairfield – Chilly Winds (Live at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011)

10 Favorite Albums of 2010

Looking back, 2010 wasn’t a great year for music. That may be my personal taste not quite meeting the offerings of LCD Soundsystem, Titus Andronicus, MGMT, Broken Bells, Kanye West, Spoon or other names on others’ lists, but could only come up with a few standout albums. There were even fewer that I loved unabashedly. Still, I managed to pull together ten LPs and EPs that I can call favorites and have earned regular rotation inside my ears. As always, agreement and vitriol is welcome in the comments.

1. Beach House – Teen Dream (MP3: Zebra)
Hearing the first few notes of this album, I can immediately taste a fantastic soup and bread made in the cozy kitchen of my friend, Megh. A beautiful album.
2. Pat Jordache – Future Songs (MP3: Get IT)
A late entry, this is experimental but listenable, edgy but catchy.
3. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (MP3: We Used to Wait)
Another excellent album from a group that does epic just right.
4. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (MP3: Helicopter)
A fascinating collection of distorted sounds and instruments. Each listen yields something new.
5. Heirlooms – Heirlooms (MP3: Shaker Hymn)
A refreshing and promising debut EP from a Hartford band getting huge buzz right now.
6. The National – High Violet (MP3: Afraid of Everyone)
Most rock bands write songs about love, sex and drugs. The National writes them about the pressures of raising children and protecting a family.
7. The Walkmen – Lisbon (MP3: Blue As Your Blood)
While not my favorite Walkmen album, even their less sterling work is better than most.
8. Jesse Woods – Moon Rocks (MP3: Sparks)
An EP from a singer-songwriter that delivers a tight-package of well-crafted acoustic songs.
9. The Black Keys – Brothers (MP3: Everlasting Light)
Simply, this is groovy blues rock.
10. The Heligoats – Goodness Gracious (MP3: Fish Sticks)
Feel-good acoustic guitar rock that ranges from introspective to furiously exuberant.

Favorite Albums of 2009

It was a great year for me and a great year for music. That said, I’m not a music critic, nor am I particularly interested in rap, jazz or country music. Like all lists of this sort, mine is not definitive or comprehensive, it’s just what I like. I hope you like it, too.

1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Experimenting with sound is a great way to get noticed in the indie space, and when the experiment works it’s star-making. Asshole/genius Dave Longstreth and angels Amber Coffman and, erm, Angel Deradoorian combine to make perhaps the most challenging and rewarding album of the year.
MP3 – Stillness Is The Move

2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
When Grizzly Bear spent 20 minutes on stage getting their equipment just so during Bonnaroo, one meathead in the crowd mumbled that “this had better be fucking good.” Well, meathead, it was and is really fucking good.
MP3 – Ready, Able

3. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The French band that sings in English, Phoenix’s star is on the rise.
MP3 – 1901

4. Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Old soul Elvis Perkins crafts some wonderful folk with guitar, squeezebox and trombone.
MP3 – 123 Goodbye

5. Discovery – LP
The collaboration between Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot‘s Wes Miles thankfully fills a bit of the void left behind by the Postal Service.
MP3 – So Insane

6. Dan Deacon – Bromst
An electronic freakout with chipmunk voices and at times jarring buzz saw like effects is punctuated by some beautiful melodic moments.
MP3 – Paddling Ghost

7. Islands – Vapours
More joyous than 2008’s Arm’s Way, the Canadian group’s latest effort is great on headphones and with the windows rolled down.
MP3 – Hearbeat

8. St. Vincent – Actor
Taking over Regina Spektor’s crown as the quirky indie world crush, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) delivers a quite stirring album.
MP3 – The Strangers

9. Passion Pit – Manners
I love the direction music is heading. First, a group couldn’t get widely heard until they were signed by a record company. Then influential MP3 bloggers could bring attention to unsigned artists. Now, anyone can make an album on their laptop and become popular if the music resonates with listeners. It’s an exciting time when music fans aren’t just consuming, but creating.
MP3 – Moth’s Wings

10. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
As Quentin Tarantino said about Elvis and the Beatles, people can like both but always like one more than the other. I believe this is also specifically true of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, but maybe it’s just me?
MP3 – Brother Sport

Honorable Mentions:
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies
MP3 – When I’m Small

Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
MP3 – Not Fair

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
MP3 – Anonanimal

The XX – XX
MP3 – Crystalised

Girls – Album
MP3 – Summertime

*Special thanks to Dan Russell of Sea Tea Improv for proofreading!

Best/Favorite Albums of 00s

I’m no music critic, so won’t bother trying to articulate precisely why I think these albums are better than any others released in the last ten years. They have impressed me with their musicianship, innovation and emotional heft. I’ve made no attempt to keep sentiment out of my decisions; that’s largely why people make and listen to music and part of what makes a list such as this one so fulfilling is the way in which it measures and signposts my life in the 00’s.

1. The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)
Senior year of college was an undeniably fantastic time and this was the soundtrack. I first heard it at my friend John’s house and mocked it as Eurotrashy. It’s fair to say I was wrong.
MP3 – The District Sleeps Alone Tonight

2. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
Their epic quality is a little too self-serious for some people, but I think it’s the natural extension of the old emo movement, only with lots more layers of sound, old-timey instruments, chugging percussion and talent.
MP3 – Rebellion (Lies)

3. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (2009)
Groundbreaking stuff. Despite seeming to be an asshole, Dave Longstreth is an undeniably talented asshole. Fusing world music influences with the transcendent voice sounds of the beautiful chorus (Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle), the Dirty Projectors creations are fresh and appealing.
MP3 – Temecula Sunrise

4. Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)
There should probably be a Radiohead-only category, because that’s how good they are. My favorite band is like the musical equivalent of the Cohen brothers–moving from one genre to another and showing complete mastery of it with everything they release.
MP3 – Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

5. Grizzly Bear – Vecketamist (2009)
Creating music that is undeniably new yet familiar, Grizzly Bear are the most talented musicians I’ve seen live. They took several minutes setting up at Bonnaroo to get their equipment just right, so committed are they to their sound. The result, of course, is flawless, from Ed Droste’s rich voice right through the rest of the band.
MP3 – Southern Point

6. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
The song below was probably my favorite for a few years. To me, YHF was Wilco at its best, an ideal blend of folk, alt-country and experimental rock.
MP3 – I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

7. The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)
Revitalizing the pop rock scene early in the decade, The Strokes conjured some of the deepest hooks ever on this astonishingly cool album.
MP3 – The Modern Age

8. The National – Boxer (2007)
I read somewhere that this is unquestionably a drummer’s album. Having not paid much attention to drums before that, it was like hearing and loving the songs for the first time all over again.
MP3 – Green Gloves

9. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
The pick of many for album of the 2000s, and I’m not going to argue. Imbuing sophisticated electronic sounds with powerful emotion, Kid A deserves all the praise it gets.
MP3 – Everything In Its Right Place

10. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)
On the heels of Michigan, the quirky and hugely talented Sufjan Stevens raised fans’ hopes of a 50 state opus with the release of Illinois. That doesn’t look to be on the cards anymore, though it takes nothing away from this fantastic album.
MP3 – Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!

11. Frightened Rabbit – Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
Sometimes an artist just comes along at the right time. A few days after being completely taken in by the raw emotion of Frightened Rabbit’s music, I was down in New York City watching them in concert. That they’ve reached a larger audience since then is not at all surprising.
MP3 – Floating in the Forth

12. Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2003)
I always think the Flaming Lips are from England or Holland instead of Norman, Oklahoma. I think it must have something to do with their sophistication (no offense to Oklahomans).
MP3 – Fight Test

13. Spoon – Kill the Moonlight (2002)
If you want cool, look no further than Spoon. Britt Daniel is cool as they come and both Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga could have easily made it onto this list.
MP3 – Stay Don’t Go

14. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
Sort of the antithesis of the electronic, experimental direction of many bands, Fleet Foxes’ quiet, pastoral stylings hearken back to a time long forgotten.
MP3 – Blue Ridge Mountains

15. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Having “New Slang” featured in Garden State was maybe the best and worst thing to happen to the Shins. That big break brought big expectations and to me, they never managed to recapture the magic present on Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow.
MP3 – Turn A Square

16. Islands – Return to the Sea (2006)
Fun, irreverent and in an instant shifting to earnestness and longing. The amount of personality on this album makes for a joyous and thoughtful trip.
MP3 – Rough Gem

17. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)
High tempos, heartfelt lyrics and driving guitars makes a good recipe for great music and Silent Alarm delivers on every level.
MP3 – This Modern Love

18. White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
My brother Aaron played this for me when it first came out and it completely captured my imagination… probably because I was listening to LEN’s “Steal My Sunshine” and Santana’s “Smooth” before then.
MP3 – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

19. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
I was psyched to see Phoenix when I went to Bonnaroo and they delivered with the best concert I’ve ever seen. Their guitar riffs went right down to my bones and the crowd was absolutely bananas. They’re the quintessential rock band.
MP3 – Lisztomania

20. Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope (2006)
Though the guitar has been the preferred rock music instrument for quite a while, the piano and cello are pretty much tied for my favorite. Perhaps Regina Spektor’s aborability and musical chops will signal a sea change?
MP3 – Summer in the City

Honorable Mentions:
Modest Mouse – Good News for People Who Love Bad News
The Walkmen – Bows and Arrows
TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism
New Pornographers – Mass Romantic
Passion Pit – Manners
The Format – Dog Problems
Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland