nostalgia, ULTRA. mixtape by Frank Ocean

In light of recent events surrounding hip-hop and R&B artist Frank Ocean, I was inspired to check out his 2011 mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA.  A member of the alternative rap collective Odd Future, Frank Ocean possesses a nice voice that adds some tenderness and emotion to the otherwise hard, gritty stylings of Odd Future (this being said–I haven’t listened to much of their music).  Having heard Tyler the Creator and witnessing his music video for “Yonkers,” I decided I am hesitant (and terrified) to listen further.  Outside of Odd Future, Frank Ocean made a few appearances on Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne,” adding some great choral melodies on his tracks.  Ocean recently posted an open letter on Tumblr describing his first life-changing love, which happened to be with another man.  Many wonder how this will impact the climate of the often regarded homophobic nature of the hip-hop community.  In any case, Frank Ocean’s debut studio album was recently released early on iTunes and I wanted to get a gauge by which to compare his new material (some context outside of his recent “coming out.”)

Overall, I was very impressed with ‘nostalgia, ULTRA.’  The record feels like more than a mixtape, from the production value to the quality of the lyrics and melodies.  I think that Frank Ocean’s real strength lies in his storytelling ability.  I absolutely love his spin on ‘Strawberry Swing,’ primarily for the story and the message of the song.  Taking music from alternative music giants like Coldplay and MGMT shows his appreciation for and understanding of various genres.  For this reason I was reminded of Kid Cudi or B.o.B, paired with the delivery style of a more soulful Drake.

For the most part ‘nostalgia, ULTRA.’ is a cohesive, complete experience.  I feel that one or two of the tracks were noticeably less strong than the rest (i.e. ‘Songs For Women’).  Less strong, however, does not mean these songs aren’t worth listening to or filler for the album.  My biggest gripe with the mixtape are the brief intermission tracks named for various old-school video games.  They do not really add anything to the record, and I don’t really understand their significance.

When it comes down to it, this is a catchy and well-constructed mixtape that proves Frank Ocean is a talented artist.  I think that his coming out as a bisexual or homosexual man was a positive, brave move (especially in the world of hip-hop), and I think bringing this to the public’s attention will attract new fans and bring support to the release of ‘channel ORANGE.’  I am going to wrap up this post with the most meaningful track off his new album: ‘Bad Religion.’

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Sufjan Stevens

AmbitiousGrandioseExperimentalOrchestralEclectic.

I believe that all of these words accurately describe one of my absolute favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens.  Some might also include terms like pretentious, over-the-top, or eccentric.  Though I wouldn’t consider the music or individual of Sufjan to be pretentious, I can agree that the style and scope of his work is not very everyone.  Upon first hearing his album ‘Illinois’ in college, I was not immediately taken by the exuberant and overwhelming sound of Sufjan.  Much like a bottle of fancy wine or smelly cheese (forgive the crappy similes–I don’t really like wine or cheese, for that matter) I needed to give the record some time to age on me.  Given this time, however, I came to realize that beyond his slightly strange nature and bubbly sound existed a highly gifted musician and a genius composer.

‘Illinois’ is a masterpiece.  A concept album with beautiful orchestral music and powerful lyrics based on personal stories (not his stories–but engaging ones nonetheless) and historical references, I would be shocked to see him create anything else that comes near to this achievement.  I do think it might be unfair to downplay his remaining body of work, which may not measure up to this particular album, but displays his ability in a multitude of ways.

‘Michigan’ is the album that precedes ‘Illinois,’ and is the most similar in terms of construction and overall feel.  This very well might be because it is a similar concept album (both focusing on their respective states–obviously).  I just think that Sufjan was in a particular place in his evolution as an artist, and both of these albums demonstrate that.  Before ‘Michigan’ he wrote ‘Seven Swans,’ which has more of a soft, acoustic feel, but very well might be the most sensitive and emotional of all his albums.  The ‘All Delighted People EP’ was very, very good, and came after ‘Illinois.’  I think that Sufjan took some steps away from the type of music he created in his previous two concept albums, but for the most part created a similar product.**

Having become a huge fan of his music, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered he was to release a new full-length album in October 2010.  The result was not what I expected and I was initially disappointed.  ‘The Age of Adz’ was ambitious, grandiose, experimental, orchestral, and eclectic, but it was also largely electronic (a genre I never listened to).  However, much like my experience with ‘Illinois,’ I found that time and repeated listens made the album thoroughly more enjoyable and quite an experience.  While I still prefer ‘Illinois,’ I love ‘The Age of Adz’ and cannot wait to see what Sufjan Stevens thinks of next!

**I could have mentioned a few other instrumental, seasonal, and “extra” albums that consist of material not included on previous albums (demonstrating his ability to put out not only quality, but quantity as well), but I will refrain from doing so.  At the very least, please find a copy of ‘Illinois’ and give it a try.  It really is an amazing album.

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Warrior by Mark Foster, A-Trak, and Kimbra

I’d like to preface this post by mentioning a few things: (1) I have been absent from WordPress for quite a long time–I’m going to make an effort to change that this summer (2) The inspiration for this track post came from watching and listening to the song live at the Greek Theater in Berkeley this past weekend.  The show was really impressive and all of the performers had something different to offer.  Kimbra turned out to be an exciting performer with a unique voice.  Mayer Hawthorne was a throwback with loads of charm and never failed to get the crowd involved.  Finally, Foster the People sounded amazing live, put on an entertaining show, and proved themselves to be at the forefront of the indie scene.

Warrior by Mark Foster (lead singer and frontman of Foster the People), Kimbra, and Canadian DJ A-Trak, is a catchy, electropop tune that wonderfully showcases each of these artists.  From start to finish, this song captivated my attention for a number of reasons.  The production on the beat is enticing and had me toe-tapping from the start with its quick computerized drum beat.  I love Kimbra’s voice for the verses, along with Foster’s contributions on the chorus.  Foster demonstrated the ability to construct songs with refreshingly memorable choruses in Foster the People’s debut album (‘Torches’) with songs like ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ ‘Helena Beat,’ and ‘Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls).’  There isn’t really a single song on ‘Torches’ that fails to deliver a successful chorus.  Toward the end of ‘Warrior’ is a breakdown with a haunting melody from Kimbra, which wraps up the track nicely.  I look forward to seeing what each of these artists has to offer in the future, and have a strong hunch that Foster the People and Kimbra will continue to make names for themselves in the industry.

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Finding Love: My Musical Journey

Music has long been a huge part of my life.  Around the time I hit puberty and started thinking more about girls, music helped me sort out and identify my emotions.  I can still recall the artists, albums, and songs I listened to as relationships emerged or fell apart.  While the music might not have always been of the highest quality (see: Nick Lachey), it could easily be paired with the way I was feeling.

As much as I loved and needed music, I never studied or learned how to analyze or create it.  Though there are exceptions to the rule, I tend to believe in the sports-music dichotomy: at a young age one tends to choose between the two.  In my case, I took the athletic route.  I studied Tae Kwon Do, played competitive soccer, excelled in basketball, and earned All-League honors on my high school tennis team.  At the time, I was never encouraged to pursue music.  It just didn’t seem to be written in my DNA.

After finishing my degree at UC Davis, I came back home to begin my life as an adult.  It turned out to be one of the most difficult times of my life.  Many factors contributed to serious anxiety and hopelessness, including unemployment and the end of my first serious relationship.  Slowly, I was able to pull myself out of the darkness.  I made some key life changes and channeled my energy and emotion into a newfound hobby.

In January of 2010 I began playing guitar.  At first, it was a real struggle.  I couldn’t seem to figure anything out, and at times I would get frustrated.  All I wanted to do was recreate some of the beautiful music that I loved so much.  With practice, I could play simple chords and piece together popular, identifiable songs.  I was proud of myself, and with this improvement came the desire to create something that I could call my own.  From the fire of pent up emotion that I had stored within myself rose the ash of artistic expression.  I began writing very cheesy songs with honest lyrics and simple chord progressions.  While I couldn’t sing, I decided it didn’t really matter.  It was always my goal to “not sound terrible.”

Over time, I compiled a number of songs.  Some were better than others, but all tracked my emotional growth.  At one point in early February of 2011 I wrote a song called “Love is a Hoax.”  As the title indicates, I was distraught with the direction my love life was headed–nowhere.  I had been actively using a few different online dating sites for nearly a year with no success.  I was unhappy and on the verge of giving up.

Then, miraculously, she entered my life.  Browsing one of the aforementioned dating sites, I came across a familiar face.  I couldn’t place where I had seen her before, but immediately sent a message to find out.  As it turned out, we had been in the same kindergarten class.  The memory of her adorable five-year-old class picture flashed into my mind, and I couldn’t believe the odds.  She responded to my initial message and we began to ‘catch up’ on a regular basis.

I tend to be on the cautious side and I have never been particularly skilled in the art of charming women.  Nonetheless, I decided early on this was a girl worth taking risks for.  I quickly weaseled my way into her plans, meeting up for a walk at a local park that we both frequented.  She was easy to talk to, gorgeous, and seemingly out of my league.  When I found out she was a true blue Golden State Warriors fan (a hard thing to find), I concluded that she was truly something special.

This was on a Monday. On Wednesday we played tennis (she put me to shame and had me racing all over the court) and ate dinner.  I still remember her telling me some sort of story involving one of her students farting, and it had me cracking up.  That Friday we saw a movie (Unknown with Liam Neeson) and ate some food while we watched the Warriors get their asses handed to them by the Hawks.  I drove her home and we shared our first kiss when I walked her to the door.  We spent the next day in San Francisco, and I will never forget laying on the grass in the Yerba Buena Gardens looking up at the city skyline.  I knew at that moment that I had found something remarkable.

I think one of the scariest things out there is telling someone ‘I love you.’  A few months into the relationship I knew that I felt love and desperately wanted to tell her.  Unfortunately, fear had the best of me and I postponed the occasion for a good one or two months.  I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to turn my car around after leaving her house, just so that I could make it known to her in a big romantic gesture.  I channeled this love into perhaps the most meaningful song that I’ve written, ‘Something Unsaid.’  While eventually I was able to tell her and it ended up enhancing our relationship tenfold, I’ll never forgot composing this song. We’ve been together for nearly ten months now.  I’m so lucky that I can wake up everyday knowing that I have her in my life.

“I was lost and lonely on a mixed up ride; But since I met you I’ve felt so much inside; The other night I left something unsaid; So here it goes in this song instead, I love you”

http://www.youtube.com/user/micfeeno/videos

http://www.youtube.com/user/soccer3playa88/videos

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My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West

Let me start off by saying that I am not a fan of Kanye West as a person. Though I have never met him, he presents himself as an arrogant, selfish, egotistical jerk (insert additional profanities here: i.e. douche, jackass, etc.). It’s much the same with one of my all-time favorite artists, John Mayer. Is John Mayer an unbelievably gifted guitarist (perhaps the greatest of our generation) and singer? Definitely. Did he make a comment about his dick having racist tendencies (likening it to a KKK member)? Unfortunately, he did..

While it can be hard to separate the artist from the person, talent is talent. John Mayer is a guitar god and Kanye West is a hip-hop hero, and I consider them both geniuses in their respective genres. Kanye West is without exception my favorite rapper of the current day and age, and this is why:

  1. He is honest, intelligent, and a lyrical mastermind.
  2. He is a very talented producer, shown in the quality of his albums.
  3. He has played a huge role in redefining the hip-hop genre, as becomes clear after listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I have loved each of Kanye’s hip-hop releases (808’s and Heartbreak, in my opinion, was more R&B or Pop). College Dropout was an honest, brilliant record. Late Registration and Graduation started exploring more refined production with the expanded influence of various genres (featured artists such as Adam Levine, Chris Martin, and John Mayer). My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the culmination of Kanye West’s creative power.

The very first time I heard this record through, I was absolutely blown away. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is made up of huge beats, huge names, and huge quality. Tracks are beautifully composed, and a multitude of instruments add substance to some very memorable tracks. From the strings and horns in ‘All of the Lights’ to the piano in ‘Blame Game,’ Kanye shows an affinity for various genres of music. I absolutely love that Kanye brought in artists like Kid Cudi, John Legend, Rick Ross, Big Sean (slays on bonus track ‘See Me Now’–see below), and Bon Iver.

My only criticism: I can’t say this album features Kanye at his absolute best lyrically (don’t get me wrong, he is still really good). One thing is for sure… The product as a whole is remarkable!

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Gorilla Manor by Local Natives

“And the award for creepiest mustache in a band goes to… The lead singer of Local Natives!”

Okay, that was uncalled for… My apologies. The truth is, Taylor Rice and Local Natives are an unbelievably talented group of musicians that composed a stellar debut album in Gorilla Manor. The band itself has drawn a number of comparisons and when I listen I do hear many similarities to bands like Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Not at all. I love these types of bands that have command of a unique sound in the world of indie music.

Gorilla Manor is strong from start to finish. The tracks have a great deal of depth, with strong, meaningful lyrics and really impressive instrumentation. The result is songs like ‘Wide Eyes,’ which has spiritual/religious undertones combined with a rhythmic percussive beat, beautiful harmonies, and magnificent instrumental solos.  ‘Airplanes’ is an emotionally driven tune focused on the loss of a loved one. Each and every track brings something special to the table, making for an enjoyable listening experience. Some of my favorites include the aforementioned tracks, ‘Shape Shifter,’ ‘Sun Hands,’ and ‘Who Knows Who Cares.’

The song from the video below is not from the album (it’s a Simon and Garfunkel cover), but it’s just so badass that I couldn’t resist sharing. I have NEVER seen anyone play the tree so vehemently!

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EPIC: Every Play Is Crucial by B.o.B

I didn’t realize how expansive the world of hip-hop was until I discovered DatPiff.com a few days ago. The sheer number of artists releasing free material to get exposure is huge, which opens up a world of possibilities for music lovers like myself. The first mixtape that caught my eye was the new B.o.B release, EPIC: Every Play Is Crucial.

I love B.o.B and consider his style a new breed of hip-hop. He’s a young, intelligent guy with an appreciation for many genres of music, and this shines through in his work. His albums and mixtapes are heavily influenced by the parallel worlds of rock, pop, alternative, R&B, and hip-hop. I like to think of B.o.B as a cross between Outkast, Kid Cudi, and Kanye West. He has the swagger of an Atlanta rapper, the open-mindedness of a Kid Cudi, and the clever and humorous lyricism of a Kanye. Regardless of his influences, B.o.B is a talented artist all his own.

I’ve probably listened through Every Play Is Crucial five times or so, and I really like what I hear. While a few of the tracks aren’t on par with most of the others (Welcome To The Jungle and Boom Bap featuring T.I. & Mos Def) in terms of beats, production, and sampling, this does not in any way impact the overall flow of the album. The quality of the tracks is really impressive. A majority of the songs feature a guest producer or artist, including Eminem, Ryan Tedder, Jim Jonsin, and Lil C. With all of these big names involved in the mix, the EPIC vibe of this tape is undeniable.

Fans of B.o.B and quality hip-hop should definitely check out this mixtape!

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The Damnwells

I’m thankful for a lot of things in my life. Without the support of my family, friends, and girlfriend, I would be lost. Like many, I can take these things for granted, which is understandable (but not acceptable). On this day of showing thanks and appreciation, I want to introduce an underrated band that deserves some recognition.

The Damnwells are an alternative/indie band that has been around for the better part of ten years. I had no clue of their existence before I watched ‘Chaos Theory’ with Ryan Reynolds, which featured a number of their songs from various albums. In the climax of the film, an orchestral version of ‘Electric Harmony’ (listen to the album version above) framed the scene so beautifully that I couldn’t help but shed a tear (or two–granted, I can be a softy). Realizing that so many of the brilliant songs from the movie came from this seemingly unknown artist, I needed to find out more.

Anchored by lead singer Alex Dezen, the Damnwells manage to create deeply emotional tracks with running guitars and gorgeous melodies. In terms of song-writing ability, Dezen matches up with the best in the business. Dezen’s voice is understated, with a deep, raspy quality that complements the band’s wonderfully arranged instrumentation. It’s a real shame that the Damnwells haven’t received the kind of public attention that they deserve, but I suppose that’s the nature of the music industry: talent does not always mean success.

If you have forty-five minutes to spare, I suggest you listen to an acoustic set with Alex Dezen (posted below).

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Blood by The Middle East

One of my favorite movies from this year was ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ It was really funny, genuine, well put together, and had a great cast. I was also surprised by the quality of the soundtrack. One standout song was Blood by The Middle East, an Australian collective of very talented musicians. The combination of acoustic guitar and tender lead vocals with several added elements (various percussive instruments, xylophone, harmonizing, humming/whistling, etc.) result in a beautifully composed  product. Unfortunately, The Middle East split earlier this year, which is a real shame. Don’t be surprised to see a post for their latest studio album ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ in the near future.

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My Fave 5 YouTube Artists

I’m going to make this post really simple.

YouTube is rich with undiscovered talent. In honor of this, here are five of my favorite YouTube artists:

5. Juliana Vieira–This girl is a kick-ass guitar player!

4. K.i.D–The only rapper in my top 5. He’s young, but he’s definitely got some skillz (<–with a z). This particular track reminds me a lot of Kid Cudi (‘No One Believes Me’) and features another California artist, Samson.

3. Boyce Avenue and Kina Grannis–Yes, this is two different artists, and they’ve both kind of blown up outside of YouTube. Definitely worth mentioning though.

2. Alex Goot–In high school I was all about discovering new music, and Goot was one of the musicians I found. What’s cool about Goot is that he plays nearly all of the instruments in his covers and originals. Pretty impressive.

1. Gabe Bondoc–When I discovered Gabe I went crazy for awhile. His voice and talent are unbelievable. Watch him shred apart a Disney song.

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