Awake – Josh Groban (2006)

Album artwork for Awake

Album artwork for Awake

I think most of us can agree that Josh Groban became a household name after his song “You Raise Me Up” achieved tremendous popularity.  Even though it was released nine years ago, Groban still remains unparalleled in his unique brand of operatic pop.  Two years later, in 2005, he released his third studio album, entitled Awake. Despite having received groundbreaking recognition for Closer, the previous release, he managed to maintain his strong reputation with the addition of Awake.  This album contains everything about the Josh Groban package that makes it desirable – the stunning orchestral arrangements, the spice of international influences, and of course the silky, rapturous voice of the man himself.  Not only does he live up to his name with this album, but he also shows that he has an eagerness to continue his musical development.

Although every song on Awake stands out as its own distinctive composition, the one unifying factor between all of them is the smooth clarity of the vocals.  At times you may actually find yourself thinking that an angel is residing in your head, relaxing your mind with its soothing tone.  Angel or not, the message of this album rings true; music from all corners of the world can come together to create a beautiful product.  Each culture has given birth to its own individual form of musical expression, and Groban has seen the opportunity in combining them into a greater whole.  One minute you are walking down a windswept alley in the streets of Barcelona, while another you are dancing in the villages of South Africa, but always there remains the familiar presence of your melodious guide.

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Don’t Panic – Jon Gomm (2009)

Album artwork for Don't Panic

Album artwork for Don’t Panic

I’m sure that many of you have heard of the likes of Andy McKee, who became something of a YouTube sensation after posting a video of him performing his original song “Drifting.”  He utilized a number of techniques, previously unknown to most of the world, that work to use the guitar to its full potential as a multi-purpose instrument.  Popularized by guitarists such as Preston Reed and Michael Hedges, such a technique, often referred to as “percussive fingerstyle,” uses both hands to draw out percussive sounds from the instrument through sharp hits on the strings and the body of the guitar itself.  Songs written in this style often use alternate tunings, giving the musician virtually limitless possibilities for note placement, along with the use of harmonic overtones to create higher pitches.

Similar to Andy McKee in style is the lesser-known but equally-talented Jon Gomm. Originally hailing from Lancashire, England, he has released two full studio albums to date and has been touring since 2004.  Although it is definitely easy to see the influences from McKee and other virtuoso guitarists, Gomm sets himself apart from his contemporaries with his incredibly diverse and unique blend of musical styles.  Described as a “one man melting pot,” he exhibits a mastery of a wide range of styles on Don’t Panic, his latest studio album. Folk, jazz, rock, blues, country, and even metal – they’re all represented on the album.  And did I mention that the second verse on the opening track, “Waterfall,” is sung entirely in Urdu?

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Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal – Periphery (2012)

Album artwork for Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal

The last several albums that I have talked about on this blog have admittedly been fairly calm in terms of instrumentation and style (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), so it’s time to kick it up a notch with the heaviest album so far: Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal.  Before even listening to the album, we can tell that the band Periphery at least seems to either have a good sense of humor or an excessively nerdy obsession with terrible cinema (or perhaps both), so we can be assured that the music must not be too bad.  As the follow-up to their highly regarded debut album, Periphery, this second effort showcases the band’s successful effort to adhere to their definitive style while continuing to expand musically.  In the two years that have elapsed since their first release, it is clear that the band has matured as a cohesive unit both musically and compositionally.

Periphery has been instrumental in carving out a recently developed niche in the heavy metal community widely known as “djent.”  The origins of such a word come from onomatopoeic relation to a particularly refined tone of guitar distortion that is achieved by palm muting heavy chords while boosting the gain to emphasize tightness and clarity.  Such a sound becomes apparent in any of the fourteen tracks on Periphery II, as it is a defining characteristic of their style.  Although there has been an unending flow of controversy as to whether or not “djent” metal is an appropriate name, I am choosing to consider it as a recognized subgenre because it is currently the only name that has been associated with the style, and it would be a disservice to simply lump it in under the label of progressive metal. If you happen to be one of those who believes that “djent” only applies to the guitar tone and not the style of music, then consider this: industrial music is named after Industrial Records, the record label that spawned it, psychedelic rock is named after the psychedelic drugs that were widely used by its most avid supporters, and the term “ska” comes from the distinctive sound of the guitar strumming that defines the genre. If these are all considered legitimate names, then surely “djent metal” must also be valid.

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Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins (1956)

Album artwork for Saxophone Colossus

Album artwork for Saxophone Colossus

The early days of Sonny Rollins were a time when jazz was flourishing across the United States. The atmosphere in the music scene was full of excitement as jazz musicians continued to experiment and strive to push the envelope. Growing up in Harlem alongside other soon-to-be jazz greats, Rollins quickly become enamored with such a world full of creative expression, and he began rising through the ranks as an outstanding jazz musician.  He played with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.  By this time, the stage was set for Rollins to cross the bridge into jazz stardom, and in 1956 he released Saxophone Colossus, an album which would change the perception of jazz saxophone forever.

There are very few records that are more definitively jazz than this one.  Saxophone Colossus is an essential part of any jazz collection worth its salt.  Despite having been recorded over fifty years ago, it still remains as an incredible album that stands out effortlessly against some of today’s best releases, just as Sonny Rollins still remains as one of the most influential jazz musicians.  Sonny Rollins brought about a new method of musical creativity and improvisation to the table; something that made his style truly unique.  To this day, it has proven immensely hard for other jazz musicians to copy such a distinct style.  He’s frequently been described as a “free player” and a “thematic improviser.”  As Rollins himself has put it, he is a so-called “stream-of-consciousness player.”  In other words, he has gained the incredible ability to be completely spontaneous in his solos, but also to give such improvisations a cohesive overall structure at the same time. This is not an easy task at all when soloing over fast, complex chord changes.

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Soon It Will Be Cold Enough – Emancipator (2006)

Album artwork for Soon It Will Be Cold Enough

As rave culture began to take hold moving into the early 1990s, downtempo electronica, or chill-out music, as it is sometimes called, originated as a calmer alternative. With DJs playing high energy sets for hours at a time, special “chill rooms” were set aside at clubs for ravers to relax and take a break from the constant bombardment of loud music and sweaty bodies. Ambient electronic music was played in these rooms as a contrast to its more frenetic counterparts, and a culture revolving around such music began to slowly emerge. Artists started to expand the boundaries of such a genre out in many different directions over the next two decades, and today we acknowledge a wide assortment of styles as falling under the label of “downtempo.”  One such subgenre is trip hop, an experimental style that draws influence predominantly from ambient electronica, hip hop, R&B, jazz, and house music.

Enter Doug Appling, more commonly known by his stage name Emancipator.  In 2006, he released his debut album, Soon It Will Be Cold Enough, as a trip hop producer.  Among other things, this album represents this blog’s first endeavor into downtempo, chill music, and I feel assured that it will not disappoint.  Emancipator maintains a consistent sound throughout the course of the fourteen tracks on Soon It Will Be Cold Enough, yet it never becomes dull.  At minimum, the music can fade into the background whilst your mind is elsewhere, however at its best it can provide a remarkably thought-provoking experience – the kind that sets the stage for significant personal introspection – while relaxing the mind and allowing tranquility to seep through your body and soul.

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The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile (2011)

Album artwork for The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Something that always catches my eye (or my ear, rather) quickly when I’m looking for new music is the word “crossover.”  When it pops up, I usually find upon further investigation that it is referring to an unexpected blend of two or more styles of music that are not normally put together.  Although this may sometimes result in the unfortunate weakening of the overall effort, that is not the case at all with The Goat Rodeo Sessions. One glance at the illustrious names appearing on the record further confirms such a proclamation; the featured musicians come from a variety of different musical backgrounds, spanning from the strict discipline of Baroque music to the looser, more informal structure of progressive bluegrass.  Described as “an ambitious and groundbreaking project that brings together four string virtuosos,” The Goat Rodeo Sessions is a collection of original compositions that are sure to bring about the intellectual appreciation of well-thought-out classical pieces and the homegrown nostalgia of energetic bluegrass.

Of the four maestros on the album, the most well-known is perhaps Yo-Yo Ma, who is considered one of the most famous cellists of the current era.  He has the most notable classical background of the four, and certainly brings the full extent of his experience with such music to the project.  On mandolin is Chris Thile, who was a member of Grammy Award-winning progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek.  He has also released a collaboration album with Edgar Meyer, who plays acoustic bass on The Goat Rodeo Sessions.  Edgar Meyer, in addition to having released six solo albums to date, has played and collaborated with the likes of Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck, James Taylor, and Mark O’Connor, to name a few.  The fourth and final member of the group is none other than Stuart Duncan on the fiddle.  He has been recognized on numerous occasions by the Academy of Country Music as Fiddle Player of the Year, and he has won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album as part of the Nashville Bluegrass Band in both 1994 and 1996.

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