There are plenty of bands living in Brooklyn, but most of them don’t headline the new 19,000-seat Barclays Center when they play a hometown show. And most of them definitely don’t do it while their frontman croons a lyric like, “It’s a common fetish / For a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table / Cock in hand.” The National does both. You can’t read a press piece about the band and its fantastic new record, Trouble Will Find Me, without reading about the glacial pace of the National’s success—it took almost 15 years of workhorse touring, much of it in obscurity, for the group to become indie rock’s current father figures. The band’s music, as most of those articles will also note, isn’t revolutionary or particularly flashy in its own right, just thoroughly well-composed and painstakingly crafted to the point where seamlessness can be mistaken for something staid by listeners without much of an attention span.
The real draw, the thing that sets the National apart as a subtly subversive and calmly brilliant band, is in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. (And, yes, the rich baritone that delivers them.) While most of his similarly successful peers—who shall remain nameless—are writing ENGL101 screeds that translate to “The suburbs, they’re bad!” or taking a quick break from self-pleasuring to rhyme balaclava with horchata, Berninger’s lyrics marry razorwire wit, plainspoken clarity, and evocative surrealisms to create a voice at once immediately relatable and pleasantly mysterious. Choosing his best lyrical work is a game in subjectivity, but I’ve tried to pick songs that stand out from start to finish. Leave your own favorite lines in the comments thread.
When singer Lee Dorrian exited UK-based grindcore pioneer Napalm Death in the late ‘80s, few would have predicted his next musical venture would so drastically reduce the tempo and ramp up the theatrics. Dorrian, who had grown disillusioned with punk and death metal at the time, formed doom legend Cathedral in 1989 with bassist Mark Griffiths and guitarist Gary ‘Gaz’ Jennings. The band members’ love of bands such as Black Sabbath, Candlemass and Pentagram, as well as a host of other ‘60s and ‘70s cult rockers, provided the original spark. Twenty or so years and nine albums later, Cathedral announced that it was set to extinguish that flame, bowing out after its tenth studio album, this year’s The Last Spire.
It’s enormously sad to see Cathedral cease, although, given the group’s predilection for mournful suites, that’s all very apt. The band was still making vital, passionate music—in fact, Cathedral’s last few albums have been among the best of its career. However, there’s a great deal of goodwill and acceptance surrounding what would otherwise be a tragic event. Respect for Dorrian is assured due to his role as overlord of highly regarded UK label Rise Above, and there’s comfort to be found in the fact that Cathedral has called a halt to proceedings when it wanted to, before diminishing creative returns tainted the band’s prodigious legacy.
At this point Billy Bragg is more than just a musician; he’s an institution. The past 15 years have seen him become an author, political commentator, and de facto curator/proselytizer of the Woody Guthrie legacy, in addition to his own musical output. Given his current status as a beloved, NPR-friendly raconteur in America and “national treasure” back in England, it’s hard to remember a time when Bragg was a divisive figure who invented his own brand of scrappy folk-punk that was equal parts love songs and socialism. Bragg’s latest album, March’s Tooth & Nail continues in the mold of his recent albums featuring lots of the upbeat, soulful roots music that has increasingly dominated his records since 1996’s William Bloke. His early career however, sounded much different.
Following the dissolution of his first band, Riff Raff, and a brief stint in the British Army, Bragg burst onto the scene as a solo musician with little more than his heavily accented voice and a slightly-distorted guitar on 1983’s mini-album, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, which set the template for his early work. The following year he released a proper full-length, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, which added only occasional production touches to his stark guitar songs. He expanded his sound further on his “difficult third album”, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry in 1986 which was his first top ten album in the UK. Workers Playtime (1988) was his breakup album, which saw also Bragg finally cave in and actually bring drums into the mix. Finally, in 1991 he released his pop masterpiece, Don’t Try This at Home. Recorded with an all-star cast including members of the Smiths, R.E.M., and Kirsty MacColl, the record gave him his highest-charting single, got him on Late Night with David Letterman, and allowed him to tour the world with a full band in tow. It also marked the end of his early work, as he would take five years off from recording after Don’t Try This at Home and would return to the studio a husband and father with new responsibilities and concerns.
He’s been producing music for over 20 years. He’s worked with everyone from Björk, Madonna, Britney Spears, to Alanis Morissette, to name a few. Without a doubt, UK songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Guy Sigsworth is one of the most accomplished and well-respected people working in the music industry today.
His production trajectory can be broadly described as going from experimental to mainstream, though he recently got the chance to indulge in freakier sounds with Chinese artist SingerSen. Early Sigsworth productions, from the dawn of the ‘90s, are usually danceable; cloaked in thick, hazy atmosphere; featuring synth pads that pulse and recede like waves; laced with busy high-frequency percussion; and contain the harpsichord. He also liked to throw in some Indian flavor from time to time, featuring tabla, sitar, and Indian music scales; this habit continues today. It was clear from the beginning that Guy pays little regard for staying within genre boundaries.
From the late ‘90s on, Guy began to incorporate samples, reversed keys, scratchy distortion, pitch-bent basslines and glitchy sound effects into his pieces. He also has a propensity for working with female vocalists with distinctive tones, beginning with Imogen Heap in the mid-‘90s, then Björk, Kate Havnevik, and Diana Vickers.
By the time he was working with Madonna, Britney, and his duo Frou Frou in the 2000s, he had shifted much of his focus towards shiny, polished pop, tracks that sometimes seem to overflow with instruments. His sonic palette since the start has been heavily electronic, with repeated attempts at electric guitar parts usually sounding flat. This is compensated by his impressive skill at arranging string parts, whether they need to sound threatening, kinetic, or just plain pretty.
Capable of playing off-kilter or straight down the middle, Sigsworth can flip from aggression to beauty in his work without breaking a sweat. On the eve of his next major project release, Alison Moyet’s the minutes, here’s a countdown of Guy’s best productions based on creativity, complexity, and emotional connection.
10. “It’s Better to Have Loved” by Temposhark (2008)
Here’s a typical example of Sigsworth’s signature sound in the 2000s: pitch-bending electro bass squelches that spew sinister smoke in the verse, before cinematic strings bring sweeping sentimentality in the chorus.
9. “Unravel” by Björk (1997)
Was there any way that this guy’s work on Björk’s best album wouldn’t come up? Guy’s production contribution for Homogenic—he also worked on the classic “All Is Full of Love” as an instrumentalist—is minimal compared to his regular tendencies, but effective an remarkable all the same. The airy organ, tumbling backwards keys and moaning percussion aurally approximate human breaths and heartbeats, as if we hear her bodily sensations along with her voice.
8. “Should Have Known” by Robyn (2002)
Before the Swedish DIY pop artist reminded everyone how awesome she was in 2005 (and rerecorded this track in a simpler style), Guy worked with Robyn on two tracks, both examples of edgy electronic pop. “Should Have Known” stands slightly above “Blow My Mind” thanks to its breathing, pumping sonics via a rubbery bassline and drifting synth pads.
7. “Must Be Dreaming” by Frou Frou (2002)
Sigsworth’s duo with Imogen Heap only lasted for one album, but what an album it is. Concocting a heady mix from his favorite shades of pop, electronica, symphonic, Indian and jazz trumpet, and positively overflowing with instruments, you get the sense that the producer found a perfect match in Heap and together, they did whatever the heck they wanted. Impossible to pick just one representative from the album, “Must Be Dreaming” gets the spotlight for its varied instrumentation and shifting moods.
6. “What It Feels Like for a Girl” by Madonna (2000)
An excellently placed spoken word sample (delivered by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a keening synth line immediately set the tone for Madge’s track as fashionably lonely. The producer then builds the song from a groovy verse section, driven by a cool beat and filtered bass licks, towards a dreamy chorus washed over by tidal keys and pads.
Paramore’s new, self-titled, album is its highest charting to date, debuting at number one on both the UK and US album charts. It is also one of the band’s more critically appreciated albums to date. This all comes in spite of the fact that this album, the fourth studio album of its career, is the first since the departure of founding members Josh and Zac Farro.
With the Brothers Farro gone, the band’s remaining members, Hayley Williams, Jeremy Davis, and Taylor York, are left to pick up the songwriting load that had typically been carried by Josh Farro. And the three have seemed to fare pretty well, crafting an album of 17 (!) pretty stellar tracks. Though it’s certainly the group’s poppiest effort to date, incorporating more pop production techniques and varied approaches to songwriting, Paramore still holds onto its pop-punk roots. Williams sounds as good as ever and amongst the softer pop tracks, the band shows they still know how to rock on songs like “Be Alone”, “Anklebiters”, and “Daydreaming”.