I’ll also openly admit that the first time I listened to any tracks by Sleigh Bells was this morning (before reading the Voice review) after seeing them mentioned on Brooklyn Vegan. I’d heard of the band before. Just hadn’t bothered to check out their music. The music is fine.
And I basically don’t care.
Now, I’m trying to wrap my head around this. According to Harvilla, people were screaming in worship of these new hipster gods. But to me, Sleigh Bells sound like bits and pieces of NIN, The Kills, Amanda Blank, and all those female pop singers on the radio whose names I don’t know because they all sound alike–sampled, stirred around a bit, and (per Harvilla) played at an excruciatingly loud volume. Frankly, I’m bored.
This blend of sonic components we’ve already heard in other contexts does not juxtapose genres that are disparate enough to be interesting when combined, and the combination is not cohesive enough to sound to me like anything more original than a Girl Talk mashup. (To be fair, Girl Talk has a heck of a lot of skill–arguably more than Sleigh Bells.)
My point is, if you put carrots, onions, kidney beans, and potatoes into a pot with some water, you haven’t created a new food in the way that you do when you turn flour (and other ingredients) into a pastry via a chemical reaction in your oven. When you make a stew, you chop stuff up and mix it together, but it all pretty much retains its original character, just in smaller pieces and in a different, randomized array. But when you take something as basic and mostly flavorless as flour, yeast, eggs, etc., and turn them into a wedding cake that looks like a Japanese pagoda–well then you’ve done something magnificent.
And that’s how I feel about Sleigh Bells.
Much is often said about guitarists, drummers, singers–about who the “greatest of all time” is or was, about who the “greatest” of the moment might be. But pianists are frequently overlooked, perhaps in part because there aren’t many truly excellent ones in popular music. It’s arguably easier and definitely less painful to pick out a melody on a piano than it is to master even the most basic chords on a guitar. Anyone who has strained to reach an F major chord on a guitar can appreciate the simplicity of the same chord on the piano. And anyone who has spent any amount of time at a piano can admire the dexterity involved in crafting a terrific solo, unexpected chord progression, signature style, etc., on the piano.
OH thinks it’s important to recognize the most skilled piano-playing artists of the moment. So here they are. This is not a list of all-time greats; it’s the movers and shakers of the present. Or, as Jerry Lee Lewis might say, the shake-rattle-and-rollers.
10. Trent Reznor
Surprised? Although Reznor is best known for grinding, distorted industrial rock and pissed off lyrics, he started out as a pianist. A prodigiously good one, so the story goes. For the most part, the world has yet to hear first hand these impressive piano skills that Reznor is rumored to have. Sure, he’ll tease us with a little keyboard melody here (Ghosts I, track 1), a handful of chords there (“March of the Pigs”), but we’ll have to keep waiting for the day when he unveils his more advanced abilities.
9. Alicia Keys
Classically trained (at least until she graduated high school at 16), Alicia Keys has an undeniably unique style of songwriting. Her songs mix blues with pop and hip-hop sensibilities, a combo that made her a chart-topping artist at age 20. Oh–and she sings well, too. Each of Keys’s tunes, if a bit repetitive in an R&B loop kind of way, reveal a soulfulness that has always sounded wise beyond the youthful years of their composer. (Embedding of this song was disabled. Otherwise, it would be posted here.)
8. Patrick Wolf
Precocious, a bit egotistical, and incredibly prolific, 26-year-old Wolf has released four albums in the past six years and has a fifth one slated for 2010. Stylistically, he’s all over the map; you could probably describe his songs in terms of music from just about any other era and not be too far off the mark. Roxy Music, Bowie, and even The Killers seem present and accounted for. If hearing The Killers in Wolf’s music implies he’s as heavily influenced as they are by better and more important bands of that past, so be it. At least Wolf is a better keyboardist than Brandon Flowers.
(For Patrick at the piano, go here. For cooler stuff, see below.)
7. Amanda Palmer
AFP (that’s “Amanda Fucking Palmer,” as she refers to herself) is nothing if not original. She has developed to perfection her trademark Kurt Weill-meets-Black Flag-meets-The Smiths aesthetic, turning her artistic identity into a sort of indie brand with an undyingly devoted cult following. As a musician, Palmer has progressed since The Dresden Dolls debuted in 2001 and continues to find odd ways of putting chords in succession while still somehow making musical sense. It’s unfortunate that she and drummer Brian Viglione have disbanded the Dolls: separately, they are interesting; together–live–they are extraordinary.
6. Matt Bellamy
He sings in a dramatic falsetto. He rips on the guitar. He composes orchestral arrangements on the recent The Resistance. He sings in a dramatic falsetto with a guitar slung over his shoulder while playing the piano in an orchestrally arranged song–live. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Matt Bellamy of Muse. Enough said.
5. Casey Dienel
At 24 years old, Dienel is the youngest musician on this list. After studying classical vocals and classical composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, Dienel dropped out–but her music hasn’t suffered for it. She released a solo album in 2006 and subsequently formed a band, White Hinterland, whose 2008 debut was grossly overlooked and under-reviewed. On Phylactory Factory, Dienel flirts in her high-pitched, girly voice with jazz piano riffs and deceptively light-hearted lyrics. Deceptive because this is seriously well-crafted music by a relative newcomer who clearly knows what she is doing. (Fun fact: White Hinterland released a more experimental EP, Lumiculaire, later in 2008. The lyrics are mostly in French. And it’s one of the best stoner albums of the year. Don’t quote me on that.)
4. Tori Amos
Ok, I’ll be honest: I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who doesn’t listen much to Tori Amos but who respects her songwriting abilities, based mostly on hearsay and limited personal encounters. (Personal encounters with the music, that is. Not with Amos herself. For instance, I think “Spark” is a badass song. And Amos saw the beauty in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before a lot of other people did.) I’ve heard concert accounts of her playing more than one piano simultaneously. I can’t deny that she’s a pianist force to be reckoned with, even if her lyrics are a bit overly serious for my tastes.
3. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor’s music is quirky, anti-folk, unpretentious catchiness. And then she throws in something serious (like “Laughing With” from Far or a fantastic cover of Lennon’s “Real Love”) and punches you right in the gut. Her lyrics are playful and mysterious, creating Edward Gorey-like worlds with recurring themes. (The name “Mary Ann,” literary allusions, and multiple languages continually appear). See her live, and hear a rare phenomenon: a singer who sounds better in person than on a recording. And, as a pianist, she’s capable of more than her simple arrangements allow us to hear–she began playing the piano as a child and eventually studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Perhaps someday she’ll throw a little Rachmaninoff into her concert repertoire.
2. Rufus Wainwright
As if it’s not enough that he’s of a fine musical pedigree (son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), as though it’s not enough that most of his songs are glistening gems of lyrical and instrumental (and, yes, sometimes excessively theatrical) artisanship, Rufus Wainwright has now written an opera. In 2008, the Metropolitan Opera allegedly revoked Wainwright’s commission when the artist insisted on writing the libretto of Prima Donna in French instead of English. The Palace Theater of Manchester debuted the opera in July 2009. Prima Donna received mixed reviews at the Manchester International Festival, but nevertheless, OH is looking forward to seeing Rufus perform selections from the work at the New York City Opera on Thursday.
1. Ben Folds
His dork-rock style has lost some of its novelty, and his most recent solo album Way to Normal (and the fake pre-release version) and tour were disasters. But, you have only to listen to Ben Folds Five’s debut album from 1995 to understand why Folds tops this list. In a word: showmanship. Folds’s jazz/rock skillz are par excellence, but they’re also some of the most abusive in the biz. Fists, elbows, and feet are all fair game when it comes to body parts with which he’s willing to beat the piano. Folds is at his best best by himself or with a small band; the number of musicians and goofy visual distractions onstage made his last tour a ridiculous pseudo-hippie/college-pop hybrid. Strip away this camp and newfound psychedelia, and what you have is still the most impressive, improvisationally free pianist in rock right now.
How could I possibly narrow down to just ten all the albums I’ve liked since 2000? I’m sure my best-of list will leave out artists whose fabulous albums I haven’t heard or just won’t listen to because I can’t get into their music despite how good it is. Besides, what criteria makes an album one of the best? Are we talking the most influential albums–the most artistically significant–of the decade? The most popular? Albums with politically important songs? Albums whose songs featured prominently in the consciousness of listeners everywhere? Or, just in the U.S.A.? Moreover, the decade isn’t over yet. What about those releases yet to come? For certain, “best” is too broad a term.
Even so, I’m going to succumb to this tempting opportunity to be opinionated and exclusive. Here’s my list, which I reserve the right to amend at the end of 2009, in descending order of best-ness. (Note: This list will not include Arcade Fire or Radiohead because I don’t listen to them. I know. I’m such sinner against the gods of indie/alternative music.)
1. The White Stripes — Elephant (2003)
2. OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004)
3. Green Day — American Idiot (2004)
4. Amy Winehouse — Back to Black (2006)
5. Kanye West — Late Registration (2005)
6. Muse — Origin of Symmetry (2001)
7. Constantines — Kensington Heights (2008)
8. Pearl Jam — Pearl Jam (2006)
9. The Black Crowes –- Before the Frost…Until the Freeze (2009)
10. NIN – Year Zero (2007)