Get your kid a recorder

It’s one of the cheapest joys you’ll ever create.

This is my daughter’s fourth and final session of Kindermusik. After this semester, she will graduate, which is exciting, but also sad—and a little overwhelming since I’ll have to find her another musical class.

Last night was the first night of the semester, and my little girl got her instrument for the semester: a good, quality recorder. All evening she was attached to it like she had never been to another instrument (she’s also played the rhythm sticks, glockenspiel and dulcimer in the class—as well as piano one summer). She walked around the house playing it like Peter Piper, only instead of following her, the cats merely mewed and hid in her bedroom.

The thing is, I’ve purchased recorders for her before—two of them—as Christmas presents. We always try to include some kind of musical instrument as a gift, but both recorders met untimely deaths as they were hurled across the room (she was three—and definitely not ready for one yet!) or broken in experiments (ahem, shoving crayons down the inside). I think if we had stressed how these are instruments rather than toys, they may have had longer life spans.

That said, perhaps she simply wasn’t old enough to use them yet. There’s a reason that they wait until fourth quarter to give them recorders, after all. Maybe if you introduce the recorder at an earlier age, they just aren’t ready for the instruments. They like to bang on things quite a bit up to age seven—maybe that’s why the glockenspiel was a more appropriate choice for five-and six-year-olds!

Just seeing the joy on her face as she pranced around the house in her pajamas and socks with that recorder, however, made me reaffirm my vow to find her another musical program soon. She missed Kindermusik over winter break and will surely miss it dearly upon graduation this May; now all we have to do is determine her passion when it comes to an instrument and go from there. So far, she has indicated an interest in both the piano and drums, and we could go with either. Finding one that’s as affordable as Kindermusik will also be a challenge. I just hope we can find a teacher as good as the one she has now, too. Not only does she provide quality instruction; she’s also a fun, encouraging teacher who uses gentle methods and doesn’t give the blank “good job!” comments that bother me so much.

I am definitely open to suggestions!

The best Christmas songs ever

Don’t think so? Share your own list!

Today my family and I are starting a new tradition. We’re making party foods—cheesy potatoes, little smokies and punch—and cleaning up before we jump into decorating for the Christmas season! I even have last year’s Christmas Spotify playlist all set for the occasion.

I must confess, however, that my daughter and I have a jumpstart on the music, as we listened to it on Wednesday as we made a few crafts. To my utter horror (okay, I’m exaggerating), she informed me that she hates not only Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” but also “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus!” (I prefer The Ronettes version, myself, though I also enjoy Mellencamp’s.) Then I understood, at least regarding the former: for someone who doesn’t yet know the big “secret,” why the heck would Mom kiss Santa? Hello, that’s cheating on Daddy! Didn’t think of that one. So instead of these favorites, here are the songs I’m recommending for the best Christmas songs ever this year.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

I have to have this song playing while we decorate—and it has to be the Brenda Lee version. To me, holiday songs aren’t just about the songs themselves but who sings them; if it’s a ruined version I won’t listen to it. This is one of my favorite songs from childhood and it’s just not Christmas without it!

Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town

Let’s face it, I am all over anything by The Boss. So Springsteen’s version of this song is my favorite. It’s also the one you can rock out to, which is essential during the holidays.

Frosty the Snowman

I do like some of the classics, and Bing Crosby’s is my favorite when it comes to this song, which is equally classic.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Ella Fitzgerald’s got to sing it—although I really like the Elf version, too!—and I know it’s a bit of a creeper song (okay, a lot of one), but I just can’t help but love it. It’s a guilty pleasure song for me. I also lover her version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” No, I’m not a religious person, but I sang in choir for 12 years, so I love me some holiday music.

Step Into Christmas

As with my Springsteen, anything by Elton John is good with me—and this is such an upbeat, fun song. Gotta play it a few times during December!

Bluegrass music: A great genre

Why music fans should consider bluegrass

Bluegrass music is great music for people to listen to. However, many people do not realize why this music is so great for them to sit and listen to for hours on end, but if people know about the reasons to listen, it is easy to realize why this music is a great choice to listen to.

A great reason why people should listen to this genre of music parallels to the stories that are told with the music. Typically this music will tell a story that people can relate to. Since they can relate to the story, it is easy for people to understand the music. Then the person can connect a time in their life when they were in the same situation that the music is expressing.

Another reason to listen to this music is the relaxation level people can find. Generally when people are listening to music, it is to relax from stressful situations. When people listen to bluegrass,they are able to relax to the music and know they can feel great. Without this though, the person may have trouble enjoying and relaxing because of the different music genres that are presented in bluegrass style.
Listening to music can be extremely enjoyable. However, some people may have trouble relaxing and enjoying music in its entirety because they are listening to the wrong music. This is when people need to know more about why they should listen to bluegrass music, instead of anything else. 

Justin Townes Earle

A successful singer-songwriter with country, folk, Americana and blues roots

Inspired by a man walking out of the post office here in Nashville, I knew I could not let this article go unwritten! This man represents what my friends and I want to be: a successful singer-songwriter whose roots are in country, folk, Americana and blues. So naturally, when I set eyes on him my body froze in its place, only to release my moments after he had left the scene. I leaned over to a friend of mine and whispered, “That was Justin Townes Earle!”

Son to musician Steve Earle, and named after his father’s mentor Townes van Zandt, Justin grew up in South Nashville becoming hooked on drugs by the young age of 12. He played in a couple different blues and rock bands in his teens and even played guitar and keyboard for his father’s band the Dukes. However, his hard drug use led to his firing. Since then he has come off hard drugs and is focusing more on his music, heavily touring these past few years at places like South by Southwest, Grand Ole Opry, Bonnaroo, and Newport Folk Festival.

If you own the tribute album Rave On Buddy Holly, an album I also wrote on, you’ll recognize him from his cover of “Maybe Baby.” He even produced Wanda Jackson’s studio album Unfinished Business. Justin currently has five albums released between 2007 and 2012. His latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, is much more soulful than it is rockabilly like some of his earlier works. It fashions piano, violin,  horns, and female vocals to give a fresh sound to his fifth album. His most popular song from this album is  called “Look The Other Way.” 

This album is something you could easily dance to with its bluesy rhythms and smooth instrumental interludes. I’d also suggest listening to songs like “Ain’t Waitin’” and “One More Night In Brooklyn” from his album Harlem River Blues. Much of his music is focused on love. Even when it comes to his album covers, he has made sure to include a woman on the cover of each album! Being an avid Justin Townes Earle listener, I pride myself on being able to tell someone else about his music and hope you enjoy it just as much as I do.

Tracy Chapman

A musician with pizzazz and four Grammy Awards

You’ve no doubt heard of Tracy Chapman. On the off chance that you haven't...keep reading! Tracy Chapman is best known for her songs “Fast Car,” “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution”, “Baby Can I Hold You,” “Crossroads,” “Give Me One Reason” and “Telling Stories.” She has won four Grammy Awards! I believe it’s important to look back at past musicians and learn from them. For that reason, I’m writing an article about Tracy. 

She has a folk, blues-rock style that stands out among the ranks because of her distinctive voice. She does not have the largest range, but she has made herself remembers for her folk-like voice, fast paced lyrics and ability to play with her words and sing them in an unconventional way. She has sung with legends such as BB King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Ziggy Marley and Dave Matthews. 

I highly suggest listening to her cover of “The House of the Rising Sun.” She does a solo version of the song with just her voice and guitar, and it is utterly beautiful. She is simple in her style, but extremely good at what she does. If anything, listeners and musicians alike can take from her by learning to hone their own skills and not muddy up their trade with too much pizzazz and glam.

Chapman started her career busking in Harvard Square during college and playing in Club Passim. A Tufts student, whose father ran SBK Publishing, heard her sing and Chapman was signed in 1986. After graduating from Tufts she signed with Elektra Records and released her album Tracy Chapman with songs like “Fast Car” hitting number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. From there, her career is history!

New Grass Revival

Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Pat Flynn & John Cowan

If you thrive for the sound of bluegrass mandolin, fiddle and banjo, there’s no doubt you will love New Grass Revival. The band consisted of Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, John Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn and was active between 1971 and 1989. They were a group of musicians who wanted to show the world what bluegrass instruments could perform beyond the confines of original bluegrass.

They were quite contradictory to the “traditional” attire of bluegrass music at the time, growing their hair out and wearing whatever they pleased instead of matching with short hair cuts. Many people did not like what this group was doing with bluegrass music, even stating that Bill Monroe did not mean for bluegrass to be played that way. While the band never meant to disrespect, Monroe actually enjoyed their spin on bluegrass.

Their music incorporates the sounds of bluegrass instruments but their melodies are much more geared toward folk and rock, with singer John Cowan bringing that sound to the group through his soulful voice that in my opinion is a prime example of someone who truly feels what he is singing and can convince you of it with every syllable he sings. A great example of what I’m talking about can be heard in their song “Love Someone Like Me.” The band’s highest charting single is called “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” I would also suggest listening to “Dark As A Dungeon.” This song is much more on the side of soulful soft rock, but compliments John Cowan’s voice beautifully.

No matter what age you grew up in this music is sure to move you. Their songs prove what diversity music can have, even within what genre they label themselves as, bluegrass. Today you can go watch Béla Fleck and The Flecktones, one of the members of the band, who played banjo. Their performance is jaw-dropping and covered in talent with Victor Wooten, the famed bass player, also performing. Béla plays many songs on banjo and will give you a taste of what you missed out on in the '70s and '80s with New Grass Revival. So go revive yourself of the same old music you always listen to and take on the challenge that New Grass Revival took on, to break the confines of what they knew.

Iron & Wine

Kiss Eachother Clean

Walk far from home with Samuel Bean, better known as Iron & Wine, in his latest album Kiss Each Other Clean that was released in 2011. If you’ve listened to Iron & Wine in the past you know that he is very soft spoken, often using his guitar as his main instrument, and focused on a folk singer-songwriter style of writing.

This is all quite different in comparison to this new album, which pulls from electronic instruments and is much more upbeat, even reaching toward jazz and rock. It calls on Bean to sing with a larger range, making his voice sound more toward the forefront of his pieces in comparison to past recordings. He even has a background vocal section of women to dictate the song along with the instrumental melodies.

It’s amazing to see how far Bean has come with his music, being a bedroom musician who played guitar for ten years before a friend asked to record some of his songs on tape, leading him straight into a record deal. My favorite songs from this album include “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough,” “Walking Far from Home,” “Me and Lazarus,” and “Monkeys Uptown.” It think these songs are a great way to start listening to this album.

However, if you’ve never listened to Iron & Wine before, do not use this album as basis of your opinion on him. Listen to “Naked As We Came” from his album Our Endless Numbered Days before even trying to put a name with what you understand this artist to be. This is actually a rule of thumb we should apply to any musician. I suggested “Naked As We Came” because I’m almost certain you’ve heard this song before. It is one of his most popular pieces. So go listen to some music with your friends and enjoy the day!

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

Outer South

You are probably familiar with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes with his popular songs “First Day of My Life” and “At the Bottom of Everthing,” but do you know of his project Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band? No?! Then keep reading and start listening beginning with “Big Black Nothing.”

Conor Oberst is known for his sing/talk like voice, but this album is much more vocally melodic in my opinion, and in turn much easier to sing along with. The project includes the voices of other musicians as well, such as Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Jason Boesel and Macey Taylor. 

If you’ve never listened to this album I suggest starting with “Big Black Nothing,” “Air Mattress,” “Bloodline” and “Ten Women” to understand their sound. One of my favorite songs on the album is called “Snake Hill.” It is sung by Taylor Hollingsworth. Although I do not enjoy his voice the lyrics of the song I find to be very quirky and interesting. The song is about a snake who falls in love with a girl. This theme reminds me of Tom Wait’s “Fish and Bird” song, except much more dismal.

I would also suggest listening to Conor Oberst’s other bands, such as Bright Eyes. My favorite album from Bright Eyes is by far I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning due to its very folky singer-songwriter style. Do not hesitate to buy a Conor Oberst album. You will impress your friends with you musical knowledge and can talk about Oberst with almost any young musician today!

Seth Avett as Darling

The Avett Brothers have gathered quite a following this past year with their latest album The Carpenter. The band’s love for banjo, guitar, cello and upright bass group has lead the ranks of folk and rock a like with frontmen Scott and Seth Avett singing and screaming their hearts out over their families, their homes and the ones they love. However, most people are unaware that Seth Avett has released three albums under the name “Darling” or “Timothy Seth Avett as Darling.” 

His music is primarily just him singing with his guitar, many of his songs being displayed on YouTube. However Scott, his brother, accompanies him at times. Like his band The Avett Brothers, he sings of love, family and home. However his music is much more somber. His voice being the higher of the two brothers, he also has the ability to sound extremely young and vulnerable, something many musicians strive for in their sound when articulating stories of the past. 

He also is known for having some phenomenal covers such as Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird” and “The Way It Is” by Nicole Atkins. When looking up his original songs, I suggest starting with pieces such as “I Can’t Remember” and “Awaiting the Flood.” He emanates with the beauty of original folk music, blues and story telling, but never lets it constrain him.

He often will start his pieces with a soft melody that repeats itself with new words and let them grow till he’s screaming and belting his way to the end! I highly suggest looking up Seth Avett, as well as Scott Avett, who also does many YouTube originals and covers. And if you’ve never listened to the Avett Brothers, I can’t express the importance of buying their albums right now before you live another minute without them!

Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues

Fly away with the Fleet Foxes as they travel through soul searching harmonies and booming acoustic instruments and you figure out recollect on your life. That’s what listening to Seattle-based indie folk group Fleet Foxes will do for you. Playing off of baroque and folk vocals, the simplistic style of their music grows into nothing but a masterpiece as you listen further.

Their second studio album Helplessness Blues was released in 2011, a work that received praise from reviewers and everyday listeners alike. The band started out as a high school duo of Robin Pecknold singing lead vocals and guitar with Skyler Skjelset, who played lead guitar. Since then Fleet Foxes has grown to include bass, two more vocalists, drums, keyboards and mandolin. 

Their songs “Helplessness Blues/Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal” are probably their most well known. However I would also suggest listening to “He Doesn’t Know Why,” a piece that definitely channels the groups' 60s-like sound. Pecknold and Skjelset both saw the importance of musicians such as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Neil Young from an early age, sparking their friendship. 

The album Helplessness Blues proved a difficult journey for the band. However, it most definitely paid off. When recording the album, Pecknold wanted to record the vocals in one go. “So even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals," Pecknold said.

I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound,” Pecknold said. After two years of writing material and recording since 2010, the band brought their piece together for us to hear. Don’t let this album slip through your hands or pass by your ears. Instead, listen to it now!